Innovation in Cross-Functional Teams
22 Oct 2021   ·   

For companies, innovation is the key to making clients enthusiastic, staying ahead of the competition, and offering new products or services. Today, it is the main and decisive factor in any success story. Companies know pretty well that they cannot put all the eggs in one basket or count on just one source of income. Because of this, they try to anticipate the future and its problems—a fight against obsolescence indeed. Meanwhile, in the world of sports, there has never been such fierce competition, especially as part of the entertainment industry. Supply seems to be endless and, most of the time, it is free. Sports survival as a way of entertainment is due solely to innovative strategies such as using Design Thinking methodology for it, which is a co-creative innovation process aimed at coming up with innovative ideas, or, in other words, value, which is jointly created with consumers or users. However, when producing innovative ideas, innovation cannot be conceived today as a single phenomenon or an individual effort. Teams taking part in innovation programmes are generally cross-functional. Besides, companies themselves team up in order to complement each other, share resources and run risks.

Through innovation, not only do clients or users build loyalty or increase their motivation to buy but the company also diversifies product wise. Decades ago, thinking that the profit margin of sports clubs would be extremely wide in the textile market by selling shirts was far-fetched. Nor would one understand their diversification as service providers like the English clubs that have travel agencies and all kinds of discounts for their members. Just as today, thanks to the arrival of OTT media services, TV channels from the late ‘90s now count on exclusive content platforms.

In the Innovation in Sports course—more specifically in the Developing Solution Space module—offered by Barça Innovation Hub along with the BIHub director Albert Mundet, the ESADE professor Ivanka Visnjic and the BIHub’s ambassador in the USA and Gains Group’s CEO Steve Gera, they explain cases in which ground-breaking strategies have been formulated in the world of sports and other fields which are worth knowing.

One of them is the project run by Barça Innovation Hub with the aim of freeing time for their analysts. As they used to spend more time editing videos than making analysis, the goal was automate their work through algorithms, thus giving them more time for qualitative tasks. In order to make this a possible solution, and as the project involved different departments, a five-year road map along with a cross-functional team were proposed.

As Albert Mundet explains, the premise was based on the idea that “the coach is at the core of the decision-making process, and their staff cooperate in abiding by their decisions with the maximum possible knowledge.” In other words, everyone would be working for the coach. “In sports, there’s a hierarchy in which the coach is at the top. Having in mind this insight, that’s how we decided to conceive this project”, he adds. After defining a Minimum Viable Project, the development of the idea led to the creation of new metrics that have revolutionized the world of data analysis in football. Through this program, it is possible to assess the positional play of the team and gauge how the individual position of a player can contribute to the positioning of the entire team. Initially, the project defined the most common and elementary tactical concepts of the game and in a second phase it will try to determine more abstract ideas such as assessing a player’s decisions.

To understand the importance of multidisciplinary knowledge in an innovation process, the trajectory of Tinker Hatfield, Nike’s designer, is also studied. An athlete who had to quit due to an ankle injury. After this incident, he studied architecture and used all his knowledge to create footwear models. He thought about preventing injuries so that no one else would have to go through his traumatic experience. He had a vocation of service, he wanted to solve the problems of athletes through his designs.

After visiting the Centre Pompidou in Paris, he was fascinated by the way this building allows its guts to be seen. Consequently, in 1981, he took this concept as the basis of his first Air Max shoes. Later, after water-skiing, the Air Huarache shoes would become his new brainchild in 1990. He was mesmerised by how the neoprene ski boots perfectly fit skiers’ feet and ankles, so he did the outsole of his new model from this material. However, the most successful shoes—the Air Jordan ones—were designed considering players’ needs, but above all, their ankles’ safety. Thirty years later, this model is still sold but with modifications.

Details of Ferrari, Michael Jordan’s favorite car, or the nose of World War II planes with shark jaws drawn on them, found their way onto other models such as the Air Jordan 4. The latest, the Air Jordan 20, told the story of the star’s career with two hundred icons embedded in the trainers. The intersection of different fields was fundamental in all of Hatfield’s creative work. He explained: “I think staying in your studio is not a good basis for an idea, you have to go out and live, that gives you a library in your head and then translate it into a unique design work”.

In the sale of jerseys, the most important milestone was undoubtedly Norm Charney’s ideas. In 1981, observing the public’s interest in NFL helmets and jersey designs, he thought about the possibilities of marketing them. He was convinced that there was a potential market for their sale. He met with NFL officials, who dismissed his idea, but granted him a license to sell them himself. It was a huge success and the NFL soon realized that they had let slip through their fingers a million dollar idea.

In the field of entertainment, competition among video game consoles has been fierce ever since Sega challenged Nintendo for the throne. When Sony launched PlayStation, the once all-powerful video game company had to reinvent itself because it was completely left behind. The solution they came up with was revolutionary. Instead of investing in technology, which was the field in which the commercial battle was being fought, they decided to completely change the concept of video games. The Nintendo Wii console was the result of uniting two concepts, the traditional concept of video games and physical exercise. Technologically, a new wireless controller with motion detection was added. The new product became the best-selling console on the market in just one year because, in addition to attracting fans, it managed to seduce consumers who had never played or been attracted to video games before.

As Ivanka Visnjic sees it, it is not possible to produce ideas from scratch. “All ideas come from a source of inspiration. The more distant this source is, the more innovative and radical the idea will be.” What matters is fostering innovation in safe environments. It is necessary to have a climate of confidence and psychological safety in order to listen to every innovative idea. In an organisation needing to foster innovation, it is fundamental for its members to feel confident to be creative and share their ideas. In fact, the more diverse ideas are considered, the higher the probability of success will be.

There exist many techniques for dealing with brainstorming, but it is essential for them to be focused on a given problem. One of the advantages of cross-functional teams coming up with ideas is the cross-functionality of such thoughts. Thereafter, their viability and their potential benefits will be what will really assess how valuable all these ideas can be.

In management literature, especially that referred to creativity, it is noted that, on many occasions, well-established organisations have problems drawing attention into ideas which offer them minimum value in the short run. However, the potential of those ideas supposedly making modest progress can be really seen once they have been implemented. On multiple occasions, having expectations of radical or ground-breaking ideas coming up during the innovation process may facilitate highly fanciful or relatively feasible ideas which inhibit the development of a less spectacular narrative. On the other hand, it may also be the solution to specific problems. This way, not only is creativity essential—ideas will always be the innovation’s starting point—but also planning in advance how to spark them, apply them and make good use of them.


Gilson, L. L., & Litchfield, R. C. (2016). Idea collections: a link between creativity and innovation. Innovation

Bowonder, B., Dambal, A., Kumar, S., & Shirodkar, A. (2010). Innovation Strategies for Creating Competitive Advantage. Research-Technology Management


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