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4 Innovation Lessons from Football


Well, it’s the final week of the NFL regular season, and playoffs are just around the corner (Go Packers!). College football bowls are going into high gear as well (Go Wake Forest!).

Just recently I read an article on the “Top 10 Play Innovations” in the NFL so I thought it would be a good time to explore what innovation lessons are held there for us.

First, let’s talk about what they didn’t do in pro football. It may be obvious, but teams didn’t diversify into baseball or basketball or any other sport. They also didn’t expand their footprint by using the sidelines, stands, or concession areas for certain plays. Coaches didn’t suddenly start playing 12 or 13 players at a time to gain the upper hand. Teams also didn’t elect to use an object other than a football like keys, a shoe, or a pineapple (Sorry, Southwest Airlines!) on their possessions.

So, what did coaches and teams do to create competitive advantages while staying within the confines of the rules of the game? Just how did they create innovation in what might be perceived to be limiting circumstances?

This is not a lesson on football (I wouldn’t be the right one to give it), and I’m not going to go into great detail about schemes, formations, and defenses. Here are, however, a few themes I noticed that have lessons in innovation for all of us:

Placement- Most innovation in offensive or defensive schemes starts with the placement of the players. Use of more running backs, more wide receivers, or an extra defensive back created options and changed the game. Words like “pressure” and “neutralize” are used to describe the effects of these inventive formations. Does your organization have people assigned to the right positions? Do you need to shift areas of responsibility? Would putting more emphasis on a given facet of your “game” create a competitive advantage?

Motion- The movement of players at the onset of a play also was a means of bringing innovation to football. Words like “mismatches” and “uncertainty” are key. Do your employees, members, prospects, customers, and/or competitors always know your next move with communications, marketing, public relations, branding, etc.? Are they certain of your tactics at conferences and trade shows with exhibits, sponsorships, advertising, etc.? Do your constituents already have you classified, pegged, nailed? What can you do to create a mismatch, to make them have to respond accordingly and not think of your organization in the same way? What can you do to develop new efficiencies (wins) and at the same time make it more exciting for your “fans”?

Time Management- At times innovation in football has focused on the management of the clock. Terms like the “no-huddle offense” and “2-minute offense” have become universally known. Looking at the clock and play calling differently has led to long-term success for some franchises. How does your organizations approach project management and deadlines? Are you effective at the division of responsibilities? We’re all dealing with tasks that need to be done that need to be finished by a certain date or time. Does your organization procrastinate until you’re woefully behind and then try to scramble in the last two minutes of the game? How can you create an organizational culture that addresses the need for purposeful time management from start to successful completion?

Intent- Teams have found success when they took a step back and stopped doing what the rest of the pack was doing. They embraced a different approach. These teams stopped settling for what was tried-and-true; and, instead, they innovated. They stopped going with limited opportunities with defined results and forged a new paradigm. In short, they took a risk, a gamble. They could have looked like idiots if their new methods failed. Instead, they developed options for running backs, trick plays, short passes, deep passes, and schemes for linebackers to get sacks. And, these franchises came up big! What are the ways you see that you could approach problems and issues differently? What large opportunities await but haven’t been addressed because the organization is too focused on the tasks at hand? Where has dynamic leadership simply become adequate management? How do you take time to reflect and plan strategically, to truly innovate in your field?

What are the innovation lessons you see in football or from another sport? How are these being applied in your organization? What more can be done to take these examples from the field to the office?

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  1. April 23, 2012 at 10:06 am

    Good points Jay! Thanks for sharing it with me. My sport is hockey. While not focused on innovation, you may find my post 10 lessons for Association Management Professionals from Ice Hockey http://bit.ly/JzSNOP of interest.

  2. June 27, 2012 at 11:19 am

    Maybe I think to much like a male, but I love the concept of getting paid an astronomical amount of money for hitting someone. It’s astounding. If I hit you on the sidelines, you can sue me for xyz, 2 feet over & I get paid for it.

    • Jay S. Daughtry
      June 27, 2012 at 11:35 am

      That is such a great point! Boxing, hockey, and lacrosse could be looked at in much the same way. Controlled and publicly-sanctioned violence- even for those who are playing at the youth, high school, college, or amateur levels and aren’t getting paid for it.

  1. February 27, 2013 at 4:13 pm

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