Four Innovation lessons from the San Francisco 49ers

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At Brand Genetics we believe change happens at the edges. So just as we challenge our clients to look beyond the mainstream to spot opportunities, we also keep our ears pricked for new lessons from outside the world of innovation.

So it was with great pleasure that we came across these lessons in Bill Walsh’s book ‘The Score Takes Care of Itself’. Bill Walsh was widely considered one of the greatest coaches in NFL history, winning 3 Superbowls with the San Francisco 49ers over 10 years. During that time he developed a number of ground breaking innovations (for example, the short passing offensive game) which soon became widely copied – and in the book he outlines some of the principles he applied to help come up with these ideas.

Here are four that struck us as particularly applicable to the world of consumer goods:

1. ‘Be bold. Remove fear of the unknown – that is, change – from your mind’: A lesson for all innovators is Walsh’s challenge to respect the past without clinging to it. ‘That’s the way we’ve always done it’ sets you up to lose out to someone who’s not doing it that way any more. Innovation will by its very nature challenge the status quo – so learn to be comfortable with that discomfort and remember, if you’re not making people uncomfortable you’re not pushing far enough!

2. ‘Desperation should not drive innovation’: Walsh suggests we actively explore the assets that we already have but may not be taking advantage of before we’re forced to. Sometimes we dream of finding the perfect idea, creating the perfect product (or in Walsh’s case finding the perfect throwing Quarterback), but while we wait to get what we want, we need to work hard to make the most of what we already have and think creatively about how to optimise it

5. ‘Be obsessive in looking for the upside in the downside’: Building on that, and reminiscent of Gladwell’s call to action in ‘David and Goliath’, Walsh suggests that instead of looking at our weaknesses as disadvantages we try to turn that paradigm on its head. Look for the opportunities these weaknesses might present and use this fresh perspective to help open our eyes to new opportunities. Walsh developed the short passing game because he didn’t have a quarterback who could throw long – but he turned this disadvantage into a winning strategy.

4. ‘Success doesn’t care which road you take to get to it’s doorstep’: We can spend too long trying to make things the way they’re supposed to be – in innovation you need to break some rules and challenge convention but you also need to make it happen. As in Brazilian Ju-Jitsu, it doesn’t matter how you get your opponent to the ground – just that you take them down. In the end success is the true measure, so don’t be afraid think progress not perfection and be a radical pragmatist. It may not look pretty but if it works everyone will beat a path to your door.

There’s a lot the business and innovation world can learn from looking at examples of innovation from beyond our world. Bill Walsh was an expert in creating high performing organisations that used creative approaches to stay ahead of the competition – he just happened to do it in American Football.


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