Innovation, sport and the need for speed
I attended the recent Aecus (formerly Alsbridge) Innovation Showcase co-hosted by Outsource. Listening to the speakers, I was struck by how ephemeral a concept innovation is. We have all had the experience of a supplier presenting their “great innovation” with boundless enthusiasm while we sit thinking this is nothing new. I’ve often had brilliant ideas in the middle of the night only to be find out the next morning that someone else has already thought of it. True innovation is rare and it doesn’t stay innovative for very long.
This brings me back to one of my key issues in taking Technology Trust forward. I don’t focus so much on “big ideas”. Where I focus is on the continuous stream of incremental changes that add up to a big change over time. Of course we do significant projects like website refreshes and introduce new systems and technologies, but more often than not, these involve consolidating things we have previously done in less elegant ways, or are simply picking up on what we like about the way other people do things.
I have always instinctively approached technology in this way, however it was listening to a number of top sports coaches that really cemented the idea in my mind. In particular, it was a discussion around the effect of the first rugby league players who moved across to play rugby union when the latter allowed professional players. While many of the basic skills of the games are the same, the league players brought with them an approach to defence that was revolutionary to union. Fundamentally they saw the “hit” in the defensive tackle as just as important as anything they did from an attacking standpoint. They practiced it and they took pride in it.
Union players didn’t have the same approach. The first effect was that opposition sides started to focus their attacking play away from the ex-league players – they made tackles that stopped opponents in their tracks and hurt – there were weaker/less painful points to attack. The second was more profound. As these players started to become coaches, the whole defensive set up of rugby union changed. Those sides that incorporated the defensive philosophies from rugby league most effectively were, for a number of years, the most successful. Now it’s a given that as a rugby union player, and team, this is how you defend.
The point here is that for rugby union this was revolutionary. For a rugby league player it was old hat. Innovation is not about inventing something completely new. It is more often than not taking an idea that already exists and applying it in a different context.
Modern premiership football teams would beat their counterparts from the 1960s not because the players have any more natural talent – Pele versus Messi anyone? They would win because of all the tiny innovations that modern clubs have absorbed from all sorts of places over the years across everything from training methods and tactics to injury management and diet to how to structure a club. The same is true of modern organisations and the same is also true in the application of technology.
The question is, why are some organisations so much better at doing this than others? I think there are many reasons. Fundamentally it’s about culture. Being an organisation where people can put forward ideas and can try them. It’s not blaming people if those ideas don’t work. It’s being outwardly focussed, keenly interested in what’s going on not just in our immediate eco-system, but in other worlds as well – football was for years notorious for not being interested in ideas from other sports, now the top clubs scour every source for the latest ideas. It’s not assuming that all ideas come from the top. It’s being able to propagate good ideas through the organisation effectively. It’s building flexible processes and systems that can be changed and experimented with – I can already hear the palpitations of the detailed control freaks.
Above all, innovation is about speed. Doing things quickly, seeing if they work and discarding or adopting them quickly. Speed is the core of the success of the modern technology function. Whether it’s agile development or the rapid deployment of infrastructure through “cloud” models, delivering when the idea is still new and relevant is key. We all know the historical statistics on the failure of long-timescale, big-budget projects. In my experience, this comes down to the fact that by the time these projects deliver, the organisation is in a different place. The goalposts have moved so far, they’re not even in the same stadium.
Moving fast. Securing all the incremental gains. Meeting the need while the need is still painfully apparent. These are the things that the wider organisation wants, sees and appreciates. Speed is of the essence more now than it has ever been.