In the spirit of the upcoming football season, I thought it would be interesting to look at the game of football and consider how innovation has dramatically changed the game over the last 20-30 years.
In the old days, before the American Football League, many sportswriters and commentators felt that a lot of football could be described by the title of this post: 3 yards and a cloud of dust. Most football, at the collegiate and professional level, relied on running the football. It was only as the new American Football league was created that passing the football became more popular. In the old National Football League, it was often said that only three things could happen when you threw the ball, and two were bad. By this they meant that the quarterback could 1) throw to a receiver and miss or have the pass dropped 2) could throw the ball and have it intercepted or 3) could throw the ball and have it caught for a substantial gain. The first two, needless to say, are bad. These negative potential outcomes and comfort with the established processes and thinking dominated and kept the game on the ground.
It was football innovators and showmen who opened up the offense, by encouraging the forward pass. Building an offense around passing was an innovation, and completely within the rules. The forward pass had always been an option, but it took some new owners desperate for an audience to open up the game. Of course as the old NFL watched the younger league gain viewers, and build quarterback heroes like Joe Namath, they too wanted a piece of the action and started bringing more passing into their offenses. Today, the percentage of passing plays versus running plays has reversed, with far more passing plays than running plays. Perhaps soon we'll see another set of innovations from people who are trying to reinvent or revive the game. The new innovators, strangely enough, will most likely come from the college ranks - for example you can look at what Oregon is doing with its emphasis on speed. The NFL has become too profitable to embrace too much innovation - in fact one could argue that as it becomes more profitable it becomes more conservative.
Football and its adoption of the forward pass are a lot like corporate innovation. Three yards and a cloud of dust was a safe approach to winning, when football was based on safe offensive and strong defense. A running play normally net about three yards, and a consistent offense could move the ball rather predictably. They may not score a lot of points but they wouldn't create errors or lose ground. Three yards and a cloud of dust could just as easily describe the very incremental innovation that most firms are completely comfortable with. The innovation most companies practice is safe, simple, repeatable and incremental, creating yet another revision to an existing product or service. There are no great moonshots but no great failures. Most larger corporations allow new entrants or third parties to do the real big innovation, and then they hope to copy, purchase or co-opt the innovation once the market demonstrates its interest, just as the NFL eventually merged with the AFL.
Executives are a lot like coaches: they want to win at the least possible cost, and think that defense is safer than offense. A lot of coaches with a number of sophisticated offenses have entered the NFL. Only a few, including the New England Patriots, the Denver Broncos and a handful of others, have attempted to dominate on offense, and even then both the Patriots and Broncos have good defenses. Similarly, corporations prefer to defend existing markets, products and share, rather than create new, risky products that customers may not like or that may be too early or too late in a market window. Thus, it is thought better to provide an acceptable product and scale quickly to drive down costs, while amping up marketing and promotions, to defend existing products and customers. Force the competition to introduce something new and interesting, to upset the apple cart, rather than disrupt your own markets and products. What these companies fail to realize is that competition now comes in all shapes and sizes. Some competitors will want to compete head to head, feature to feature. Others will be happy to chip away at specific capabilities or features. Others will focus on specific channels or geographies. The existing defense is not nearly as good or as capable as it was in the past, not because your defense is lacking, but because the number of competitors has increased. In football, it would be similar to a defense maintaining an 11 man team, while the offense keeps adding players beyond 11, some of whom don't even plan to follow the accepted rules. The defense is left complaining about the change in rules or unfair participation, while the offense goes on to score repeatedly.
There's a few things we can learn from these football innovators. First, the things we used to fear may be the things we ought to embrace. Rather than resist the forward pass, it may be time to embrace it. Second, as we and others embrace the pass, others learn to defend against it, so that means we'll need to innovate again in a rather short period of time. And again after that. Innovation becomes a constant. Third, defenses increasingly will respond more quickly to innovations than they have in the past, so any innovation is likely to be short lived. Fourth, as the NFL show us, the more profitable you become, the more you may resist innovation, because it may cut into profits.
Unlike football teams however, who are restricted to a specific size field and a specific number of players, corporations can dramatically reshape the competitive landscape, attacking from multiple angles with a range of partnerships and channels. Innovation should be happening across types, outcomes and timeframes, which could radically change the way customers perceive leading innovators. Yet too often corporations act and innovate as if they can only work with specific field definitions, only in one direction, only with incremental innovation, only with the approved, allotted team. Football is infinitely more innovative than most corporations, with far more restrictions.
Another factor about football that's instructive to innovation is the idea of synchronicity and teamwork. For a play to work well eleven different individuals, with vastly different skills, all must execute their jobs in tandem, often reacting to events or actions by the opposing team that weren't expected. Innovation teams must have the same ability to work closely, act quickly and be prepared for a number of different alternative outcomes, yet they rarely practice and are often filled with many people with the same experience and skills. Thus, innovation is often a start and stop activity, as the team gathers itself to conduct another step in the process, rather than a fluid activity anticipating and reacting to events.
Corporate innovators could learn a lot about innovation by studying and implementing many of the ideas that flow from collegiate and professional football players, while carefully considering the emerging resistance to innovation that is occurring at the highest echelons of the league due to a desire to protect profits.