pro sports football huddle of people innovation

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What pro sports can teach you about people innovation

April 4, 2018


When we think of innovation, our minds automatically go to disruptive new products and revolutionary customer experiences. The flashy stuff. Some businesses go so far as to dedicate an entire department to innovation. In fact, companies are so desperate to be seen as innovative that according to an MIT study, 80% of S&P 500 companies list ‘innovation’ as one of their values.

The issue is that technology has leveled the playing field, and within days of launching your expensive, time-consuming, energy-sapping innovation, some kid in a basement has replicated it, and (in all likelihood) bettered it. Now what? Consider what would happen if we took our learnings from product innovation and applied them to creating more ways for our people to be successful at everything they do.

What if we stripped down the employee experience and found better ways to recruit high-performers, or build a more robust company structure that allowed true leaders to be promoted into positions where they can actually lead? What if we actually spoke to our employees and developed the culture around what they were capable of, rather than dictating it to them in a trickle-down fashion?

Imagine the competitive advantage you could create if your company had an army of invested, engaged innovators who felt fully utilized.

This, my friends, is people innovation. And the good news is professional sports has always had this surgical focus on people, meaning they’ve been quality testing ideas that we can learn from.

What professional sports can teach you
When people think about pro sports, they think about the cliches – testosterone, Xs and Os, lots of yelling. But underneath that surface layer is a treasure trove of people innovation ideas that your company can adopt, and adapt to your unique circumstances.

With a national population slightly larger than St. Louis, the Iceland soccer team came to the realization that they were not going to be able to produce enough high-level players to compete with the heavyweights of European soccer. Afterall, skill training has limits. Instead, the governing body invested heavily in something they could control: coaching.

Recent estimates suggest one in every 825 Icelanders have a FIFA coaching accreditation, and (in a pivotal move) Iceland makes it attractive and lucrative for those coaches to work with the national youth programs. With better coaching, Iceland’s most talented youngsters had more fun and decided to pursue the sport rather than get regular jobs. Many of the talented players graduated to bigger teams in England, Sweden and The Netherlands, where they received world-class coaching.

The results were stunning. After a highly successful Euro 2016 tournament where they famously eliminated England, Iceland went on to become the smallest country to ever qualify for the World Cup, where they’ll meet heavyweights Argentina, Nigeria and Croatia this summer. In 15 years, Iceland have coached themselves into the world’s elite.

Unlocking potential with recruitment strategies
Or we can look at how the New England Patriots have been using people innovation to repeatedly gain a competitive advantage despite league structures specifically designed to preclude sustained success. While many laud Bill Belichick’s game planning, his greatest asset is in fact his recruitment strategies.

Bill’s father, Steve, literally wrote the book on scouting football players, and Belichick has been refining his own player recruitment methodology since he was the head coach in Cleveland back in the mid-90s. New England have been able to get ahead by using a series of ongoing, long-term strategies designed to utilize talent to its full potential. Some of these ideas include:

  • Acquiring underutilized and underappreciated players from other teams, and putting those players into situations that allow them to use their best skills. For instance, after four years in Pittsburgh, Mike Vrabel averaged 9 tackles per season. Once in New England, he became an instant starter and averaged 51 tackles and 6 sacks en route to 3 Super Bowl wins.
  • Finding highly unique skills. The Patriots used a 5th round draft choice on long snapper Joe Cardona. Ordinarily, teams wouldn’t ‘waste’ a draft pick on a long snapper, but having played the position his whole career, Cardona was able to hike the ball further, faster and more accurately than anyone else. A quarter of NFL games are decided by a field goal or less, so is it really a waste to give your kicker an extra half-second
  • Overlooking mandatory qualifications. Tom Brady’s scouting report listed him as ‘frail’, ‘lacking physical stature’ and ‘lacking arm strength’ – not qualities you really associate with a top quarterback prospect. Rather than being handcuffed by what the industry dictated a quarterback should look like, the Patriots drafted a player they liked, that would fit into their system.

Think about it: how often do you ask candidates where they felt they were underutilized in their last role? How often have you asked a candidate whether they have any highly unique skills, regardless of how obscure they may be? And how often have you hired someone who seemed to have all your mandatory qualifications only for them to fizzle once they have the job?

Maximizing your people power
With the mass commoditization brought about by technology, your people are now your greatest source of competitive advantage. What’s required is a complete reinvention of people strategies, and a move away from the archaic management philosophies that we’ve been using since the industrial era.

As a leader, your job is now to study how to maximize teams, and work diligently to ensure your people are maximized. The kid in the basement can replicate your product innovation, but he cannot replicate your people power.

Whether you like it or not, the efficacy of adopting sports-like people processes is no longer up for debate. Corporate behemoths like Netflix are proving that people innovation and product innovation can do hand-in-hand. In fact, Netflix’s culture document defiantly states: ‘We’re a team, not a family. We’re like a pro sports team, not a kid’s recreational team. Netflix leaders hire, develop and cut smartly, so we have stars in every position.’


Cody Royle is the Head Coach of AFL Team Canada, Managing Partner of NTSQ Sports, and author of Where Others Won’t: Taking People Innovation from the Locker Room into the Boardroom. In his book, available exclusively on Amazon, Cody interviews sports leaders like Joe Dumars, Ralph Krueger and Ted Sundquist to uncover a raft of people innovation ideas that companies can learn from. A native of Melbourne, Australia, he resides in Toronto, Canada with his fiancée.

    Photo credit: Rob Colburn


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