People Make Innovation in Sport Possible
27 Apr 2021   ·   

Innovation, technology and data in sport have proliferated over the past decade, however being inventive in sports is still quite difficult due to the complex dynamic and timescale behind most innovations. Invention requires tinkering, patience, and most importantly failing. Patience and failing are not possible in sport for most clubs. The pressures to win on the pitch and support that winning by driving commercial revenue is immense and it forces clubs to be cautious when engaging with new ideas that could fail.

In 2017 when FC Barcelona was picking a structure for the Barca Innovation Hub (BIHUB), they realized this and took a long look at their core strengths as a club. After analyzing and deliberating, the core team at Barça settled on “Knowledge” as the fulcrum of their concept. This was the one thing they could contribute to the rest of the world to provide value, and in exchange receive value back from startups, experts, and partners. 

Using “Knowledge” as their leverage point, the club then realized they did not want to set up a standard innovation vehicle like an accelerator or venture studio – because solely investing in companies or helping them get a round of funding would not only be too difficult for them to manage given their existing corporate structure as a “socio club,” but it wouldn’t live up to the standard of everlasting transversality that FC Barcelona stands for. In the end, the Barça Innovation Hub concept the club launched would take advantage of their two core strengths – Knowledge and People. Catalans are by nature hard working, industrious and creative, and the leaders of the BIHUB have cleverly fused the people at the club into a global knowledge network that extends the clubs ability to envision and test the future of sport. And to do that the club relies on three types of people who are crucial to the innovation process for every club. 

For FC Barcelona these people make up a series of internal and external teams always striving to keep the club at the forefront of sport innovation. For other clubs these people and their roles are critical to understand in the pursuit of moving new ideas and new technologies forward:

The Key People

These three types all serve different roles but overlap and interchange naturally through a three-layered (like a cake!) structure where ideas and projects can flow quickly. 

This structure allows all the stakeholders to effectively communicate and work together with intelligence and nimbleness. If the experts were overtaxed with innovating they would simply ignore challenging the status quo. If the implementors had to come up with every single idea they’d be exhausted by golden retriever disease. And if the ignitors had to actually implement every wild idea then nothing would ever get done well.

The Types

It’s important to recognize that all three types of people and roles are needed, and that none of the roles are more “innovative” than the other. Oftentimes the Ignitors or Implementors get the credit for innovation, but without the expert present to ensure the survival of a new idea, process, or technology, we’re all doomed. Each is critical to long-term success for sport firms.

Ignitor. This is the idea fairy. The person who frustrates people by swinging by desks nonchalantly throwing out arcane one-liners such as “Did you know that the Dodgers are doing such and such with this amazing AI company that does X, Y, and Z? What are we doing about that?” You may want to turn away this person. Even if they don’t move you to indignation, they definitely drive you crazy. There is a good chance this person may run your team or business as coach or CEO. Or maybe they’re working in the mail room. Either way they’re insufferable because the idea actually has merit, but it’s going to take some time out of your life to investigate, implement, and then innovate it.

A good ignitor knows their audience and how to motivate them without offending them. They present ideas with stories or at least tangible evidence that what they’re talking about has merit. If they’re really, really good, they’ll present an idea in pieces over a period of time until the audience has an epiphany all on their own. They simply have the emotional intelligence and awareness to incept an idea and give it a chance.

A bad ignitor, on the other hand, just talks about what they read in the news and has zero idea how any of it affects your specific job or of the broader implications of trying to lift the idea off the ground. A bad ignitor edits their idea too early or is too directive on what should transpire without input from the audience. A bad ignitor lacks empathy and emotional awareness, and it shows in the way they present ideas, which is normally gruff or unnecessarily confrontational. 

Ultimately, the difference between a good and bad ignitor is the determining factor in instigating any sort of progress or innovation. And the best ignitors understand what implementors and experts go through because at one point they had one of those jobs. 

Implementor. This is the task master. The person most likely to organize the company cafe or circulate internal “tracking” documents so everyone knows exactly whose turn it is to clean the company cafe. You love this person for their diligence and appreciate the fact that they’ll keep their head down on a project until it’s finished. This is the person who swings by your desk and asks if you’ve RSVP’d yet for the company Christmas party.

A good implementor is the sort of person you would hire as a pet sitter for a week of vacation. You’re sure your pets are going to be there when you get back, happy and full and beautifully groomed. Good implementors are organized and diligent. They are also thoughtfully competitive. Their organizational skill is as much a super strength they use to win as it is kindness. They possess the social intelligence to move projects along and to communicate what is happening. They can also ignite ideas with the best of them, but they certainly can take a good idea and make it great.

A bad implementor seems organized but is sloppy in practice. This is likely because they are indifferent or uninterested. They don’t communicate very well. They hoard projects and are not open and transparent with other team members. They lack high bandwidth leadership and the ability to multitask across multiple ideas and projects.

The difference between a good and bad implementor is the ability to stay on task, mold ideas into better ideas, and keep things moving forward. But great implementors ask for help and surround themselves with brilliant people.

Expert. This is the steady hand. The person who runs the show. The person most likely to intimidate new hires or interns because they’re so hyper-focused on their job that they lack certain social skills. They are absolute masters in their specific department or domain. They are always either doing or thinking about their job. This person never swings by your desk, because they’re too busy getting work done.

A good expert is hyper-focused. But they also balance the tension between focused and curious. Their intellectual curiosity is demonstrated in the way they’re always reading new books or trying to get better at their job in some way—normally by asking questions. They like a good challenge. They can teach others their craft, and they do this very well. They can take a great idea and make it out of this world by either adding to it, or by stripping it down to elegant simplicity. They have a knack for cutting through ideas to find the bare essentials.

A bad expert, on the other hand, is closed off and unwilling to try anything new. They grow visibly frustrated when anyone offers an idea or challenges their area of expertise They refuse to engage, or worse, sabotage any attempt to implement anything new. They lack long-term vision and foresight. They protect their job above all else and refuse to challenge the status quo either out of fear or stubbornness. 

The difference between a good expert and a bad one is the birth of something new. But it’s the willingness to listen and add to the conversation rather than simply dismiss something new because it’s new. The absolute best experts know that ignitors and implementors are trying to give them an advantage and they empower them to do their job without sacrificing the core driving force of a sports team—winning on or off the field.

And those are the key positions on the innovation team. By sharing its knowledge with the world FC Barcelona has created a global community of Ignitors and then works diligently to scale and push projects forward internally. Whether your Barça or another club you can use your core strengths and this model for forming teams that build the future of sport for you as well.

Stephen Gera


Building the future of the sports industry