In July, the U.S. Women’s Soccer team confirmed their status as the best female football team on the planet. Their win in the FIFA World Cup saw them show great fighting qualities not only for the ball, but for equal pay, gender equality and LGBT rights. That prompted Billie Jean King to say that "these athletes have brought more attention, support and pride to women’s sport than perhaps any other team in history." Their performances were a reminder that on- and off-field goals can not only co-exist, but thrive.
A fortnight later, the New Zealand Netball team took to the court for their World Cup final in England. Unlike the U.S. women, who were firm favourites for their showpiece event, the Kiwi women arrived in Liverpool with far less swagger. They hadn’t performed well over the last couple of years, prompting a late change of coach. Many believed Noeline Taurua simply didn’t have time to get things right. But a 52-51 victory in the final, over the old enemy Australia, proved things could gel very quickly with the right ingredients in place.
The best teams in the world find ways to stay ahead of the pack. And from the privileged position of working alongside multiple world champion teams, including both the American and Kiwi women above, here are some common traits that the best share when it comes to innovation.
A simple and great bit of advice for us all to travel through life with is: ‘Be curious’. The best teams in the world are all over that philosophy.
Curiosity uncovers new ideas. It draws you into conversations that would otherwise pass you by. Staff feel empowered knowing that they’re a valued part of your organisation’s ‘knowledge hunt’. And there’s an extra sense of excitement in the workplace, because who knows what you might discover today?
Despite good intentions, it can be very easy for curiosity to get squeezed out. There are deadlines to meet, boxes to tick, things to be delivered by 2:30 p.m., please. But the best teams understand the need to strike a balance between execution and exploration.
So, bake curiosity into how your team operates. Then talk to strangers. Ask questions. Have a trial. Experiment. Push the boundaries. Try. Succeed. Fail. Learn. All that stuff. Quickly. And repeat.
Systems to Assess
Good ideas can be found anywhere. But organisational quicksand is rather common, too, and many a fine thought has died a sandy death as a result.
Top teams understand that they need systems for assessing new innovations. City Football Group, for example (who own the likes of the English Premier League champions Manchester City), have dedicated staff tracking down new technology. They then work with experts from their various internal departments to see what ideas could really fly. FC Barcelona and the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks drive innovation along similar lines. A benefit of this approach is that dedicated staff can look 'across departments' and see where innovations could deliver multiple improvements. Truly new ideas often don't sit snugly within specific departments, because they weren't created within those confines.
For other teams, dedicated innovation staff aren’t used. But the attitude from the top ensures everyone has their eyes wide open to possibilities and good ideas can quickly be adopted. Sailing’s America’s Cup champions (Emirates Team New Zealand) would be an annual contender for my ‘Most Curious Team of the Year’ award – and here’s a first-hand look at their approach to adopting new thinking ('How the America's Cup champs responded when I dropped them an email').
Where there aren’t generally agreed methods for exploring new technology, your team members can come across something exciting but then find they have major and ongoing hurdles to navigate internally. And without obvious paths for innovative ideas to travel, they mostly don’t.
"A lot of factors have gone into the boat. Time will tell if we have pushed too far and we have to step back or whether we can handle it. The learning curve will be vertical."
- Glenn Ashby, skipper, Emirates Team New Zealand
You don't get to the front by constantly following. When the time is right, the best teams move first and leaders (regardless of their position in the organisation) step up.
When it comes to high-performance teams, diversity isn’t about giving everyone a turn. It’s about the massive power you gain from looking at things through the wonderfully different perspectives of your team members.
As the winners of four of the last six Champions League titles, Real Madrid understand success. They understand how diversity contributes to that, also. Michael Sutherland (Real Madrid's Chief Transformation Officer) recently spoke with Sport Techie about how thoughts from outside of football help the club avoid getting trapped in ways of thinking. "The diversity of experiences, the diversity of opinions, is really what can be a critical element of innovation."
Matthew Syed (the British table tennis champion turned writer) takes a look at peoples ability to question the status quo in his latest book Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking. He concludes that immigrants are, on average, more creative and entrepreneurial, not because they're genetically superior, but because "experiencing different cultures provides greater latitude to question the conventions."
But not only does embracing diversity make you better, it makes you more attractive, too.
“We have pink hair and purple hair. We have tattoos and dreadlocks. We got white girls and black girls. And everything in between. Straight girls and gay girls.”
- Megan Rapinoe, co-captain, U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team
The different characters of your team naturally appeal to different supporters. So, unlocking the stories of your team members, and letting people connect with them, brings obvious benefits when it comes to attracting fans, viewers, sponsors, selling merchandise, inspiring the next generation – and all those things.
Megan Rapinoe and her U.S. Women’s Soccer teammates stood very proudly side-by-side in France as unique individuals. And in addition to winning a World Cup they delivered stunning viewership and commercial results.
“The USA Women's home jersey is now the No. 1 soccer jersey, men's or women's, ever sold on Nike.com in one season.”
- Mark Parker (Nike's president and CEO)
Embrace Start-ups as Peers
Teams with a great attitude to innovation engage with start-ups as peers. By that I mean that, despite however significant the teams’ achievements, they see two equal parties meeting. The approach is one of: ‘You might be able to help us. We might be able to help you. Let's explore.’
Every start-up would be able to share stories of engaging with teams that appeared to view themselves as significantly more important. That’s a garbage environment in which to have an open conversation – and a terrible way to start a potential long-term partnership. So, why bring that tone to the table?
Many of the most humble and open people I’ve had the pleasure of sharing conversations with are from teams smashing it on the world stage. I believe they understand that showing some vulnerability, and honestly articulating the problems they are trying to solve, ensures they get better answers and better results.
It’s very easy for any of us to assume that we understand how new technology works and conclude that it isn’t for us. But often we're wrong, at least on the first part.
The companies with a truly great mindset around innovation explore before coming to conclusions.
Almost certainly, new technology will be capable of doing something you didn’t appreciate it could. Almost certainly, you’ll think of new ways you could use that technology in your business. And, almost certainly, you’ll think of tweaks to the technology that would allow you to do things in ways you hadn’t thought were possible.
- Do: Take a meeting and ask ‘Could it?, What if?, and How about?’ questions.
- Don’t: Skip it all and assume you’ve got it sussed. None of us do 😉
Explore Internally as Well as Externally
New ideas don’t just come from outside and one way to stimulate things internally is to have your key people swap roles.
A year before the 2011 Rugby World Cup, for example, the head coach of the legendary All Blacks, Graham Henry, announced that he and one of his assistants, Steve Hansen, were changing their coaching focuses. After a thorough review, Henry would take charge of attack, with Hanson taking the forwards.
“There's no point in going through this review process,” said Henry, “and not taking any notice of the information we're getting. We think it's a way forward in improving what we're doing both for the team and as coaches."
The All Blacks went on to win the 2011 World Cup and then, with Hansen as head coach, the 2015 tournament.
Lessons From Stepping Out of the 'Hot Seat'
As a communications manger, I worked with Noeline Taurua (the coach of the world champion New Zealand netball team) at the Northern Mystics club. She was clearly one of the best coaches in the game, but she wasn’t in charge at the Mystics. Her mate Debbie Fuller was. (That's the two of them scheming above, with Debbie writing notes).
After years leading teams, Noeline had decided there was plenty to gain by being an assistant coach. And she loved it. It meant less time dealing with the administration of coaching (such as liaising with the CEO, media, sponsors, etc.) and lots of time working with players. I remember her telling me that when she went back to a head coaching role, she wanted to recreate the space for pure coaching that she’d relished as an assistant.
Noeline’s record since taking charge of teams again has been phenomenal. She’s won two Super Netball club titles in Australia, as well as led the Silver Ferns to the 2019 Netball World Cup title (with Debbie as her assistant).
So, each of us has plenty of opportunity to uncover new thinking, with ‘being curious’ a lovely and simple starting point. But organisations need to look closely at the environment they provide, so that innovation truly has the opportunity to shine.
Caley Wilson is a former communications manager of New Zealand Rugby League and Netball’s Northern Mystics. He’s had the pleasure of seeing how many of the world’s best teams approach innovation through his work as a founder of Blinder.
Blinder is a communications platform that unlocks the storytelling potential of high-performance teams. It’s used by Olympic champions, Grammy winners and teams from the NCAA to the English Premier League.