Innovation lessons from the World Cup

France's goalkeeper Hugo Lloris
France's goalkeeper Hugo Lloris celebrates with teammates upon their arrival at the Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport on the outskirts of Paris, on July 16, 2018 after winning the Russia 2018 World Cup final football match. AFP PHOTO  

There is a theoretical explanation why Brazil, Argentina, Spain, Portugal, Germany and even Uruguay lost early in the World Cup despite having some of the best players anywhere in the world.The explanation for this can be found in a small body of knowledge around creativity and innovation.

Scholars have come up with a theory of creativity and group performance which seeks to understand the relationship between individual creativity and overall team creativity, and at which of these levels contextual factors (like the World Cup) have an influence.

Generally, if you are managing creative individuals, they all must be at the same level of understanding that no one is treated differently. In theory they must be all equal but this is never the case as some are often treated as small gods in a team.

Their word almost overrides that of the team manager.Media often creates the divisions by almost exclusively focusing on the big star.

When Portugal performed and Argentina failed to meet its expectations, the headlines were “Ronaldo beats Messi” even though the two teams had not played each other.


The challenge is always how to maintain a sense of equality of team members when a few are treated like demi gods.

Good managers like the legendary Manchester United Coach Sir Alex Ferguson understand the superstar dilemma. He cut Ronaldo loose at his peak in United because he had become too big for the team to function and deliver. Neymar too left Barcelona for PSG because Messi was clouding his stardom.

The Japanese have a concept called Kaizen (continuous improvement), which is executed through team work. One of the roles of a Kaizen event is that of a team leader. This is the person responsible for guiding the other equal members through an event. He or she does not dictate, but rather helps to drive consensus and keep the team on track.

The team leader sets objectives for the event, develops success indicators and ensures that participants have the right skills.The Team Leader also bears the responsibility distributing tasks. This is precisely what team mangers should do and bear responsibility for without the influence of super star team players.

And in my view, Japan was the best team that did not win the World Cup. In their game with Belgium, Japan surprised the entire world in leading a star-studded Belgium side for most of the game. With their philosophy of teamwork, Japan is the team to watch in the coming years.

While Belgium boasted stars like Fellaini, Kompany and Lukaku, no one knew any of the Japanese players and we didn’t have to. In winning, it is not the best stars that you need but the best team.

Indeed Greg Satell in his article on the value of teamwork, published in the Harvard Business Review says that “the truth is you don’t need the best people — you need the best teams. The problems we face today are far too complex to be solved by a lone genius working in isolation.

That’s why the best innovators tend to be knowledge brokers, who embed themselves into networks so that they can access that one elusive piece of insight that can crack a tough problem.

”In concluding his article, Satell says that “the last thing you want is the prototypical “innovative” personality spouting off a million ideas and breaking all the china. What you do want is people who can collaborate, listen, and build strong networks. The good news is you already have these people in your organization.

Don’t let them get drowned out.” Virtually all these countries that were hounded out of the World Cup had best players but failed the test of teamwork creativity. France the eventual winners had a delicate balance of a European team with a kaleidoscope of players that they had to simply remain equal. In real life, we make these mistakes when we ignore the real workers “best teams” and seek to glorify the “best” worker in our organisations.