Fresh innovation lessons from the Football World Cup

Fresh innovation lessons from the Football World Cup

Fun & Games
Innovation Method
Published On:
May 21, 2023

Next week, the 21st FIFA World Cup will kick-off in Russia. As the most widely-viewed sporting event in the world, the Football World Cup is going to delight the lives of football fans around the globe for the next four weeks — mine included. While reading articles on the upcoming World Cup, I came across a range of football quotations that made me smile and realize: Succeeding in the FIFA World Cup with a national team is like successfully mastering an innovation project with your innovation team. Here are 15 football quotes — and my thoughts on how they connect to an innovation project.


“Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.”

Bill Shankly, Scottish football player and manager of Liverpool FC

“Innovate or die!” In the past decade, self-proclaimed innovation experts and consultants used this slogan to scare people into doing business with them. With the advent of the innovation economy and the imminent digital tsunami on the horizon, I couldn’t help thinking how serious a matter innovation and digital transformation is for individuals, companies and countries alike. Maybe Bill Shankly’s famous football quote applies to innovation, too?


“I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered.”

George Best, Northern Irish celebrity footballer with Manchester United

Many companies spend money on symbolic innovation activities or quick-fixes to give the outer world the appearance that they’re innovative. But just like the glamorous winger and ‘bad boy’ George Best was left with nothing to show for it at the end of his career, so do these companies who’ve squandered their innovation budgets on low value activities. In contrast, smart companies strategically invest their budgets in innovation methods and projects that allow them to develop sustainable internal innovation processes, to empower their creative people, and thus to gradually build-up a culture of innovation in-house.


“Aim for the sky and you’ll reach the ceiling. Aim for the ceiling and you’ll stay on the floor.”

—Bill Shankly

A football team that solely aims to advance to the second round is unlikely to make it to the final. It’s similar for teams working on an innovation project: Aim low, and the best you can hope for are some incremental improvements of your existing products. So, before you start a new innovation project, better aim high: a revolutionary innovation. With hard work and a bit of luck, you may end up producing a game-changing, disruptive innovation — and if not, you’re likely to come up with a few evolutionary innovations that help you to reach new customers with your existing products, or to offer new value propositions to your existing customers.


“Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.”

David Beckham, English celebrity footballer and fashion icon

Every young footballer dreams of winning the World Cup for their country. Given the millions of players around the world, achieving this goal is almost an impossible feat. And yet, in a few weeks’ time, some players will again make this impossible dream possible. Creating a bold, disruptive innovation is making the impossible possible, too. Most of mankind’s greatest creations were once called impossible by the majority of people. What impossible new creations would you be excited to create and make possible with your innovation team?


“The ball is round, the game lasts ninety minutes, and everything else is just theory.”

Sepp Herberger, German World-Cup winning coach

Before the start of a game, football commentators and pundits tend to theorize about who is going to win each game, and why. While a few of these experts were former players with successful careers, many were not. It’s just the same in innovation: many consultants, academics and Innovation experts talk about innovation in theory without having extensive practical experience as “active innovation players”.  But in the end, in both football and innovation, “the truth is found on the pitch” (as the German football coach Otto Rehhagel put it) — based on the performance and the tangible results a team produces.


“Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice and most of all, love of what you are doing or learning to do.”

Pelé, Brazilian 3-times winner of the World Cup and world record-holding goal scorer (1,281 goals in 1,363 games)

What’s true in becoming a World Cup-winning football star is true for becoming a world-class innovator: You need to be deeply passionate about what you do and the thing you want to innovate, so that you’re willing to put in long hours of work and learning that are needed to create an innovation that wows the world. The Argentinian World Cup winner Diego Maradona reiterates this message as follows: “When people succeed, it is because of hard work. Luck has nothing to do with success.”


“The trouble with referees is that they know the rules, but they don’t know the game.”

—Bill Shankly

While facilitating innovation projects at Thinkergy, we regularly encounter senior managers who are eager to observe and “referee” the activities and give instructions to the players (i.e., innovation facilitators and project team members). While these executives may have read a book or two on innovation, they typically have never actively participated in an innovation project as “players” and hence don’t really know the “innovation game” in practice.  But what can I say? As a player, you have to acknowledge the referee…


“I am constantly being asked about individuals. The only way to win is as a team. Football is not about one or two or three star players.”


Innovation in the 21st century is a team sport just as football is. The world’s most innovative companies win in the innovation game not because of a few more widely known top players (such as designer Jonathan Ive and marketer Phil Schiller at Apple). They win because many less celebrated players dedicate their talents, smarts and efforts to the firm’s innovation success. Just as the World Cup is often won by the best team effort, so the performance of the team brings out innovations that wow the world.


“Choose the best player for every position, and you’ll end up not with a strong XI, but with 11 strong 1’s.”

Johan Cruyff, Dutch striker and coach, World Cup-runner up

In a football team, different players shine in certain positions. Likewise, a successful innovation team requires a mix of diverse talents, experiences and cognitive styles, too. An innovation team needs a player who easily spots trends, a striker who shoots out many original ideas, a defender who tells you what’s wrong with an idea, and a forward who can convincingly pitch a top idea to critical supporters. Consider using a cognitive profiling method (such as Thinkergy’s TIPS) to learn more about the preferred cognitive styles and talents of your people. Then, fielding the right player on the right position in your innovation team becomes easy-peasy.


“The football game is ritual hunting, stylized combat and symbolic events.”

Desmond Morris, English ethologist and author

At Thinkergy, we prefer to design our innovation project workshops as an energetic experience in line with Morrls’ description of a football game. We invite wanna-be innovators to approach a project with the mindset of a hunter, not a farmer. That’s why we ask the teams to first thoroughly explore the terrain (aka their project case) and hunt for new trends and insights to understand what game they really should aim for, and only then to develop ideas and concepts for their real challenge. Thereby, we have the teams compete with each other to win a particular process stage in X-IDEA (based on the quantity and/or quality of outputs produced), and also engage them in short symbolic games to keep the fun and energy levels up high throughout a long, tiring workshop week.


“If you’re in the penalty area and don’t know what to do with the ball, put it in the net and we’ll discuss the options later.”

Bob Paisley, English footballer and manager of Liverpool FC

In modern football, each game is analyzed using many metrics (such as possession, distance run, or number of successful passes). In the end, however, only one metric matters: goals. The team that scores most goals in a football game wins — no wonder that Bob Paisley reminded his strikers to solely focus on scoring goals.

In an innovation project, a team wins the game by focusing on producing one or more top ideas that are then activated and turned into a tangible innovation. But in order to get there, we also keep track of other output metrics  (such as insights, raw ideas, concepts, etc.) to ensure project success.


“Rugby is a different game. There is an interruption every two minutes also in American football. Our soccer is a moving game: play, play, play, move, move – you don’t interrupt.”

Franz Beckenbauer, German World Cup winner as both a player and coach

In the creative process stages of an innovation project (especially during Ideation), it’s important to engage in fluent creative thinking: It’s just like play, play, play in football: Write down one idea, then another one, followed by a third one, and so on. Don’t interrupt your creative flow by judging an idea as impractical or nonsensical! When we think creatively, we play a fluid game like football — and not Rugby or American football, where many breaks and interventions interrupt the game flow.


“The World Cup is a very complicated tournament —six games, seven if you make it to the final— and maybe if you lose one game you’re out, even if you’re the best.”


An innovation project resembles the tournament structure of the World Cup: A team has to pass through a series of process stages of an innovation method; and like at the World Cup, you need to do well in —and ideally win— every “game” to win the “tournament”. if a team produces poor results at one process stage, it’s essentially “game over” — as the team will carry the poor results forward and will ultimately produce poor top ideas (due to the GIGO principle, “Garbage in, garbage out.”).


“Football is simple, but it is difficult to play simple.”

—Johan Cruyff

Often, the most beautiful designs and most innovative products emphasize a few essential features that really matter in a simple way that is almost Zen-like. Unfortunately, many innovation teams do the opposite while working on an innovation project. They tend to make things more complex and complicating by adding many additional functions that are superfluous. (a phenomenon known as feature creep”). So, focus on making meaning, but keep things simple.  Remember how simply Sepp Herberger described the essence of football: “The round m


Last but not least:

“Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans win.”

Gary Lineker, England’s top striker at World Cups and football pundit

I am not sure what national team you’re going to support in the coming weeks, but I wish you many enjoyable hours of cheering for your team. But please forgive me that as a German, I hope that Gary Lineker will be right once again. And isn’t innovation a bit like football? Many play the game, but at least for a certain period of time, it’s the same few players (aka innovators) and teams (innovative companies) who win in the end.

Have you become interested to play the innovation game yourself, and go through an innovation project with your team? Then contact us to find out how we may help you win your innovation game with the help of our award-winning innovation method X-IDEA.

© Dr. Detlef Reis 2018

Credits: Title photo by History of Soccer