Innovation is a Weak Link Sport
Your weakest team members will win you the title
Last week a series returned that had me more excited that the upcoming season of Game of Thrones (sacrilege, I know). Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History Podcast returned and, because I have no control over my insatiable desire to consume content, I found myself returning to the start of season 1 to quell my impatience.
Examining the Higher Education system in the United States, Gladwell leverages a sport analogy which I always appreciate. Comparing how economists believe is the best to build a winning football team, compared to building a winning basketball team.
Football (as in soccer) is weak link sport. Economists studying the way to maximise the number of wins a team has consistently find the best way to achieve this is by improving your worst player. Teams with the strongest 9th, 10th, 11th.. players tend to win more often than those with the star player on the field. Investing in a marquee player, might net you additional marketing, flair or coverage but investing $47m annually in a single player likely comes at the cost of investing more equally in talent across your entire team and statically being more likely to win games. The latter I would call The Leicester City approach.
Basketball in contrast is a strong link sport. As anyone who watched Kevin Durant dominate during the Warriors v. Cavaliers series can attest, the team most likely to win is that who has the strongest player. The star player, as well as bringing the additional marketing and brand value, can have an outsized impact on the game.
Whilst Gladwell leverages the Weak v Strong link sport analogy to assess the investment in top tier education, my mind wandered instead to my experiences in tech and the conversations day to day on innovation and digital disruption.
Time and again a press release appears, from both commercial and government organisations, of a marquee signing usually in the form of a Chief Digital Officer, Chief Data Scientist or Entrepreneur in Residence. There are two ways to assess whether they will be successful or not and in most cases it rests on whether the company investment is playing the game as a weak or strong link sport.
Innovation and, to remove the buzz word, change is a weak link sport. Real Madrid will very likely see Cristiano Ronaldo as a solid investment, but his value is not purely measured on performance. It’s the value of brand Ronaldo and all that it adds to their brand they are paying for. Hiring a marquee innovator with the intent to be able to say “we’re taking steps to innovate” or to have a brand association every time they speak at an industry event may deliver you value, but realistically they won’t be able to affect change. Often times because their efforts will be isolated, and because cultural change is required to affect any innovation, this restricts any chance they have to make their mark in your team and the league.
Often the advice I’ve heard is to assign your A-Team to the innovation cause. True, if you want to see an innovative project succeed assigning a motivated and talented team makes sense. True disruption and business change goes beyond a project, and to be successful you need to play to win at football, where killing up and engaging the weakest players in your team is critical to supporting the top tier talents. Weakest not referring to the disengaged or less skilled, but those aspects of your business resistant to change based on circumstance or team culture.
Offering opportunities for up-skilling to those whose roles are threatened by the change, in exchange for the knowledge they can contribute to better designing the processes or understanding the customer need, as is often the case with frontline staff. Engage with the areas limited by past coaching methodologies or traumatised by the memories of injuries and understand their hesitations. Learn the lessons of legal teams and procurement officers, who genuinely want to help, and understand their aversion to risk and what needs to be in place to support more efficient, agile action and decisions.
Sign the marquee player, I’m not detracting from their value, but remember future hall of fame-rs want a series ring (or six) in their bio. Like Lebron’s move to the Miami heat, they’re going to be frustrated if you hold them back by not supporting them with a strong back line.
To win, empower them as the coach and captain to build the team around them. If you want to change your organisation, it’s a weak link sport and those are the links that will either win or cost you the game.