< Back
April 1st, 2015
why innovation is really like a team sport
by Elspeth Beattie

Comparing innovation to a team sport effort may be trite but there is a lot of truth to it. Elspeth Beattie, client director at Fusion Learning, examines the similarities between team sports and business innovation.

Apple, Facebook and Google are examples of companies that have truly excelled in their respective industries to be considered innovative. Yet, these innovative achievements are often linked to the efforts of an individual.

In Apple’s case it’s the late Steve Jobs, whereas with Google and Facebook, it’s Sergey Brin and Mark Zuckerberg respectively.

Despite the focus on these individuals, Apple, Facebook and Google’s innovations were not achieved by one individual. Jobs, Brin and Zuckerberg were able to launch innovative companies because they assembled a team of talented people who shared their vision, passion and hunger – this isn’t dissimilar to how some of the greatest sports teams in history have been built.

By incorporating the mentality of great sports teams into the culture of their business, companies such as Apple have become known for innovation. So below are five reasons why innovation is about having a team sports psyche.

Each person within a business plays a crucial role in growth and innovation

Failure

Innovators can be fearful of their business venture failing the first time, which is understandable. Innovation is hard work and the fear of failure can be like clamped handcuffs, stopping innovators from developing their business plan or launching their startup.

Instead of fearing failure, accomplished sports teams develop a positive mental attitude fixed on victory. This focus on success means trying, trying and trying again one small step at a time. Entrepreneurs must adopt this mentality when striving for innovation. The late American football coach, Tom Landry, put it quite succinctly: “A winner never stops trying.”

Fearlessness

Being comfortable outside your comfort zone is a lasting characteristic of sport tournaments. An example of this is when teams play away from home, in another city or a different part of the world.

In the same way, businesses that wish to be innovative must not be afraid of operating outside their comfort zone. There have been success stories of companies that have been innovative by diversifying into markets outside their usual remit. Richard Branson started Virgin as a record shop before branching out into the retail, banking and transport market.

Although not all of his ventures were successful, Branson managed to disrupt several markets; growing Virgin into the conglomerate it is today. Truly innovative entrepreneurs and businesses must adopt the same fearlessness.

An understanding of the opposition and yourself

To build an innovative business, entrepreneurs must acquire a deep understanding of every competitor in their market. After all, how can a business expect to be innovative in its industry if it doesn’t understand what the major players are offering?

Moreover, like successful teams, companies must be cognizant of the firm’s capabilities. Managers know the styles of each of their players, who work best together and who do not. Entrepreneurs must be able to do the same – by understanding who the rational and experimental thinkers are in their business and how best to maximise their potential.

Endurance

Innovation also requires a dedicated work ethnic. Of course, as in sports, luck will always play a role in success. However, the bulk of it is down to old-fashioned hard work and a team of people who are not afraid of putting in extra to excel.

A collective effort

Innovative businesses understand that employees who can work together seamlessly – galvanised by the company’s ambitious vision and passionate about the organisation – will strive for success rather than avoid failure. As mentioned in the beginning, innovation is a team effort and the best teams are not just skilled but united.