Winning In Innovation - Like Soccer - Requires Failing Fast

Using Soccer's Metaphor for Winning in Innovation


Winning the innovation game – like winning the soccer game – requires failing fast!

We know that winning in innovation, like soccer, is a team sport – it doesn’t emanate from individual people. Winning in innovation is a product of the social network – just as winning in soccer is a product of the team network. In both applications, success comes from applying a mindset that recognizes the interdependency between people in their respective networks. I like to describe this as genuine collaborative teamwork.

We also know that soccer represents the best example of a sport with teams charged to perform their work under changing conditions. It’s connection as a metaphor or model to innovation is direct: moving the ball on the field equates to causing existing plays (i.e., ideas) to be combined in new ways for scoring goals (i.e., innovating).

Have you ever watched a successful soccer team play a game and fail in their attempt to pass the ball to a teammate, tackle an opposing player or take a shot on goal, for example, and wondered what was happening? Not only may it be hard to figure it out – it often appeared to be chaotic. Yet soccer’s ‘randomness or chaos is accepted and featured as much as the ordered part…every misstep is not seen as deviation or correctable error,’ reports Dana Zohar in her 2007 Abstract, An Alternative Sports Metaphor for Understanding Teamwork as Complex: Soccer. Because soccer ‘is played under very wide parameters for effective play and development – and few rules for correct play,’ adds Dana, ‘Development can be focused on creativity - about the multiplicity of choices you can make with what you can do.’ This means the idea of failing fast is embedded in the game of soccer to allow teams to continue to find creative ways to move the ball on the field to score goals! Again - the best teams in the world succeed by failing fast.

One of the best examples of innovation in business is the story of Thomas Edison and his refinement of the light bulb invented by Nikola Tesla. Edison claims to have tried 10,000 times to get his light bulb completed! Thankfully, he was failing fast – otherwise we still might be waiting! One thing not often mentioned here is the fact that Edison had a team – and it was his team who were able to fail fast. As a leader, he delegated the task of moving the ball (i.e., project) on the field to score goals (i.e., produce the light bulb) to his team who effectively collaborated to innovate by failing fast. It goes without saying that team leadership is critical for managing teams. To win, leaders must be able to allow the team to focus on creativity under wide parameters, encouraging people to leverage resources across their network.

In the innovation game, the idea of failing fast must become embedded in the team’s process just as it is in soccer. How? It starts with training – followed by ongoing coaching. The training must be focused on developing an alternative mindset. Here’s the good news: an alternative mindset can be learned.

Soccer’s metaphor or model works for describing what genuine collaborative teamwork looks like – and why failing fast must be embedded in the process of winning in innovation.



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