Gents - it's great to have such a diverse set of experiences and opinions here. I'd like to start with Ben at Chelsea.

Ben - it seems as if the Premier League has shifted gears and clubs have begun to invest more heavily into data analytics and new technology.

Has innovation become more important in the league? And if so, why?

Hi Steve,

Looking at it through the lens of recruitment provides a pretty good example. The success of the Premier League has driven commercial revenues across all teams in the league, so the financial competition to recruit talented players is fierce. In this environment, clubs have naturally started to consider how to most effectively identify talent at speed.

That's where data analytics and innovation processes deliver advantages to clubs that understand how to best apply them. By that, I mean not just employing smart people, but integrating them properly into your environment and aligning them really well with organisational strategy.

Great point Ben. It always starts with people and ensuring alignment and integration. I'll dive deeper into the WHY later, but your comment made me think of the FC Barcelona Innovation Hub.

Albert - when you created the Hub how did you go about aligning the organization?

Internal alignment has been key to the Barça Innovation Hub success story. Managing talent and knowledge is at the core of FC Barcelona success.

With Barça Innovation Hub we wanted to expand this idea into the area of innovation: FC Barcelona know-how at the service of pushing the boundaries of sports industry. To make this statement happen we needed to embed our knowledge and innovation strategy within FC Barcelona departments. We created what we call the 7 areas of knowledge of Barça Innovation Hub (Health & Wellness, Sport Performance, Sport Analytics, Coaching Methodology, Fan Engagement, Smart Venues and Social Impact) with 7 leading internal experts leading each of those areas. The fact that these experts understand the key challenges of those departments and their ability to create incentives for their staff to participate into Barça Innovation Hub projects has been a true differentiator. It enabled us to truly create.

This being said, this internal alignment needs to be combined with a strategy to face potential disruptions of the industry.

So you essentially took one expert from each of those areas and put them in charge of innovation as the respective subject matter expert - it's amazing that you have the human capital and capability to do that.

I think one of the big struggles for clubs today is just keeping pace with innovation cycles because they don't have enough people to both win games and make money whilst also future proofing the club.

Marcus - Collingwood has a reputation of being ahead of the curve in Australia. Do you attribute that to people, strategy or something else?

Hi Steve,

It is important to create an environment and culture that welcomes innovation. We are lucky in Australia that innovation is ingrained and a pivotal component to all our sporting codes, creating a holistic environment where innovation thrives. This may be attributed to the tyranny of distance between Australia and other countries, but none-the-less it has fuelled an environment where teams and leagues continually look outside our own "bubble" to challenge the status quo. This is reflected within the AFL itself, with Clubs and the league being at the forefront of innovation in the country.

Coming back to your question, I believe it is a combination of having the right environment and having the right people that drives innovation. This will then not only allow you to incorporate innovation as a key strategic component of your business, but also allow innovation to thrive. Further to this, in the AFL system, we live in a world where a Soft Cap is imposed on all Football Department spending, taxing over a certain threshold. While this can be difficult to manage, it also provides a great catalyst to innovation, as it is a necessity to constantly look for efficiencies and better ways of operating. A lot of our innovation revolves around streamlining our processes and creating these efficiencies to maximise the resources we have at our disposal. In sport, one of the most valuable assets is time, so any chances we can look to create time for our coaches, players and other staff by being more efficient is seen as key. Innovating in both new tech and new processes allows us to do this.

In order to let innovation shine you need to have the right people in your organisation, but also provide an environment where their voices can be heard, and that they can challenge the way we operate without any preconceptions. This requires a total alignment of the Club, from Senior Management down to the most junior worker. Everyone's voices must be listened to, and any barriers to innovative thought removed. From this, you also need to act on innovative ideas and implement changes, which will drive a perpetuating innovative environment.

There is going to be a lot to unpack with you three I think, this could go on for a while!

Let's stick with one thread out of that thought - smart people.

What sort of people are you looking to hire at your clubs and are you looking for people with advanced degrees, innovative minsets, and/or non-endemic sport skills?

Ben - what do you look for in your new hires and how are you arming smart people at Chelsea with the tools to be inventive?

Hey Steve,

It's a massive cliché, but good people is the foundation. By good people, we mean 'Are you happy to sit next to them for 6 hours on a coach? Would you share a room with them? Are you happy to have a drink with them after work?' If someone fits that bill then it helps with integration and building a strong bond between staff, ultimately supporting our culture.

Secondly, we look at specialist knowledge. That could be in the form of advanced degrees, but equally it could be experience based. How you've acquired knowledge isn't really the issue, it's more that you have it. Each industry sector has different pathways to acquiring knowledge so you've got to look at what's relevant for the position you're hiring for.

Sport specific experience does help, but isn't always critical. It's more important if you need someone to add value to your organisation quickly. There are certain roles where we actively seek people without sport specific experience, who bring a very different approach learnt from an industry more advanced than ours in a certain area.

Lastly, whilst we absolutely want people who can align culturally with our values, we want people with a variety of experiences. We want a diverse spectrum of thinkers who collectively help us to stay nimble, adapt quickly and seize opportunities. New and varied styles of thinking helps us create unique solutions, or more often than not, adapt existing solutions.

Once we've got the right people in the building, I echo Marcus' view, in that it's about creating an environment for innovation. How do we actively promote innovation, celebrate its success and let people know it's a core part of long-term sustainable success? It's really easy to ask people to 'be more innovative,' but allowing people the time to be creative, think differently and explore new ideas is a luxury not many organisations can afford you. Lastly, ensuring innovation is a key component of both performance appraisals and professional development shows its value in the organisation.

Tying innovation mindset to performance appraisals is smart - it allows you to create a metric around it.

Marcus - do you actually score your staff on innovation? If so, how do you do that? Is it formal or informal? Do you give your staff space and time to be inventive - such as 3M giving employees 15% of their time to work on side projects they're passionate about?

We don't do anything as formal as having a percentage of time allocated to innovation, or formally appraise innovation, it is more of an organic approach driven by the people we have at our organisation. For this to work, you need to harness a culture of innovation, which is generated by having a growth mindset, being open to honest and direct feedback and by being willing to act and change when required, which comes from having the right people at the Club. I feel that the more formally you assess innovation, the more you potentially take away from the spontaneity and creativity of ideas, as they become more of a demand than an organic thought.

We do however have an annual innovation award, open to all staff, where the staff member that comes up with the most innovative and actionable business case idea gets rewarded with an overseas PD trip. This not only brings innovation to the front of mind, but also opens the door for all staff to be as creative as they want, without any barriers, preconceptions or limites to their ideas.

Following up on the point about bringing good people into your organisation, we delve deep into character when looking at who we employ. Empathic and selfless people with a growth and innovative mindset, with the capacity to just get the job done are pivotal character traits in people we hire. Clearly you need to be more than competent and have strengths in the field you are entering, but as Ben said, employees need to be able to work collaboratively and selflessly for innovation to thrive. Ego is often the killer of innovation, particularly in senior management.

Do you guys encourage failure and how do you thread that needle in an industry that hates to fail?

Straight in off the training track, Steve.

Absolutely we encourage failure. As everyone always says, failure is the best way to learn. As long as the innovative project, idea or process is in alignment with the overall purpose, strategy and values of the organisation, and is considered and methodically implemented. If it subsequently fails we will have a clear road map on how to proceed with the next iteration of the innovation.

A lot comes down to the environment you have created and the culture of the organisation. If you punish failure, innovation and creative thought will dry up and you will become mediocre and stale very quickly. You need to be willing to take a risk and put it all on the line with the support of everyone around you if you want to move towards great.

A lot of failures in innovative changes are minor,  and as long as you are perpetually reviewing the changes you make, taking the learnings from them and adjusting all while moving forward, you will inevitably see positive change. You cannot simply dismiss a failure without taking all the learnings from it. That is where the gold lies.

Albert - how many PhDs and advanced degrees do you have at FCB and do you think that having people with advanced degrees helps materially?

Hi Steve,

Total PhD with Barça Innovation Hub sums 29, currently we have 9 professionals developing their PhD under Barça Innovation Hub umbrella on specific topics affecting their daily activities which is quite rare in a sport club.

I do think going through the process of developing a PhD helps to put structure in research projects. In some way enable people to see a tangible personal outcome of doing this specific research on top of their daily duties.

However, in my personal experience, more than having people with advanced degrees is having people eager to learn every day and motivated to go out of their comfort zone. This is what truly makes the difference.

Albert - one more before you go to bed!

How do you keep people energized at BIHUB when projects take a long time or if they fail?

Innovation is exciting, but doesn't always go as planned.

Hey DA!

I think Albert went to bed, its 1am in Barcelona.

Over to you!

As a former player can you tell me if players look at how progressive the front offices or coaches are?

In short - if all things are equal will a player choose one club over another simply because they're more innovative and forward thinking?

As far as NFL - it all starts with the Head Coach and GM. Second in line is the position coach. If they aren't real motivators and understand how to best utilize you as an athlete, the rest of the organization's abilities doesn't matter.

That being said, organizations that do motivate and understand abilities seem to have talent throughout - not just on the field. Not until I retired did I see how important top down buy-in and belief of the team's system really was. Like it or not teams have a brand. And when the owner, staff, players and fans all agree and believe in that brand of ball, magical things happen... or just pay a lot more than everyone else.

Question for you guys-

American football (especially offense) doesn't really allow a lot of room for creativity. Is creativity a trait coaches value?

I assume it's different in every sport.

In soccer creativity is at the core of what coaches value the most. The whole FC Barcelona training methodology is based on promoting creativity in players through experiential learning. Our training sessions are a combination of different training tasks simulating game situations but including several constraints. These constraints put the players into difficult contexts and players have to find their own and unique solutions.

A good FC Barcelona coach designs these training tasks with specific player behavior objectives and during the session these player behavior goals actually emerge without any guidance, just as a consequence of the constraints. This is how we promote creativity through experiential learning. This is how we believe this creativity is then easily transferred into the competition.

American football practices are highly orchestrated affairs down to the fact that everything is scripted - this is due in large part to the fear of getting players injured and the desire by coaches to teach the players specific plays for the game week. Creating pressure situations that truly mimic games is unheard of for most clubs.

Ben and Marcus - how important is teaching creativity to the players at your clubs? And Ben specifically - and what age does Chelsea start to teach players how to be creative on the field?

We want our players to express themselves when they play, letting their creativity and own individual strengths shine. Very similar to what Albert said, we put our players in as many situations at training where they have to make decisions under pressure and fatigue, not over prescribing drills. Everything we do replicates what they would see in a game.

We put constraints on the drill that either limits or expands the options available to the player, but fundamentally we leave it to them to make the decision they see fit. This aids with creativity. We are more structured on our defense, schooling up our players on the shape we want to play in, but are much more free on offense, just letting the players play and their talent shine.


Make that real for us - can you give us an example of a constraint in a drill?

For example, you might just have an open match simulation but on a much smaller field forcing much more contested situations and making it harder to pass the ball. Or have a certain team with an outnumber, i.e. play 18vs17 or 18vs16.

The other constraints you can put in are changing the ways you score the drill. It might not be goals or behinds, but maybe instead score how long you can keep the ball off the opposition, how long you keep it at your end of the ground or how many tackles you stick.

By altering the mindset of a team and the scoring parameters during the practice, you will force the players to be creative in coming up with solutions to the problems or constraints at hand. We love it when a player breaks the drill by doing something totally out of left field.

I was in Portugal a couple years ago and one of the clubs I worked with would open the gates to their academy a couple hours before scheduled practice and throw a dozen balls on the pitch. Kids would show up early and play pick up games. At age 10-12 the kids were given freedom to organize their own practice sessions at times.

Ben - how early do you start putting kids into environments that spur creativity?

Hi all, sorry, busy day yesterday,

Creativity is key. From the time a player joins us at 8 years old we put them in highly challenging environments to force them to find their own solutions. Part of that is a truly varied and highly demanding games programme, playing many different styles of football (7-a-side, futsal, street football, 11-a-side, indoor, tournaments, festivals, international competitions) and playing both specifically to win (international tours or national competitions) or a development focus on teams and individual traits (most weekly fixtures up to the age of 16).

We work to a 'best with best' principle, so each player is pushed into an age category to really challenge them. Much like both Marcus and Albert described, our coaches create constraints-based training environments, aligned with key development objectives, either on a team or individual level, or both. Our coaches are given complete freedom to deliver a programme that is relevant to their players' needs, but are expected to be accountable to what they are trying to achieve and why.

Beyond how challenge spurs creativity in our players, we believe in prioritising a 'fun' environment from U8-U12, where players really enjoy coming to training and playing matches. Whilst this develops/supports their 'love of the game,' it also creates a safe, low pressure environment to foster creativity.

This has been fun and meandering, which has made it even more fun.

I know Matt, our esteemed editor is here - if you have a final Q from the ST readership then feel free to fire one out, but I have one more for each of you to answer.

Give me two bullets on why you think your sport club should be investing in technology, data and innovation today?

This has been great fun discussing this topic.

From my perspective, there are a few things we want to explore that we feel are going to take us forward.

One thing we have been looking at from a technological point of view is the gamification of our GPS data. What this would do is allow us to render our data in a 3D realistic environment (similar to a FIFA or Madden Xbox game) by using the GPS data we collect from training and games. This will allow us to focus on any moment in the game from any view (including the players own eyes) to aid with game education, decision making and strategy. We also feel this would be hugely beneficial to the broadcaster and Club's commercial teams, as the content would be of significant interest to the fan.

We are a very data rich sport, so another thing we would like to explore is using the data to predict likely outcomes to a much greater and more detailed level. Currently, we use data to review our performance, and make recommendations going forward, but the more data analytics advances, the more we should be able to use the data to predict the likely outcomes of training and games. Being able to manipulate strategic inputs to aid with decision making by providing a prediction and with what level of certainty this will occur is the next frontier for us in data analytics. Given our sport is so open and with so many variables, this will be an interesting project.

Hi Steve,

Thanks for helping the conversation along, and thanks Albert and Marcus for sharing such quality.

When it comes to technology, innovation and data, there are two great reasons why any club should invest today.

The first is convenience. These tools have the power to make everyone's life easier and who doesn't love that? They can take your existing processes and do them quicker or with less effort. For example, automation of GPS data collection and reporting after training or matches can save your sports scientists anywhere between 20 minutes and 2 hours after each session. The data can be near instantly available in whatever form is needed for internal department interrogation or to share with coaches and players. This additional free time your sports scientists now have can be used to understand what's actually happening in the data, as opposed to just creating it, or frees up capacity for new processes they have not previously had time for.

The second is insight. Technology, innovation and data have the ability to show you things you couldn't see or didn't know were there otherwise. This could be the aggregation of data sets to present a single picture that the human brain just simply couldn't pull together because of complexity or scale, or it could be a level of detail not consciously visible. When you are able to give this additional detail to help a coach or performance support specialist do their job more effectively, it's a win all around.

These two areas are key, but let's not forget that technology and innovation (and sometimes data) can be fun! Bringing new and interesting ideas to the table challenges everyone to keep thinking, keep pushing the boundaries of what's possible, but also (if done properly) keeps everyone focussed on what you're actually trying to achieve.

Thank you everyone for such a nice conversation.

Same as Ben, first one convenience. Football is such a complex sport that you will always need qualitative experienced based analysis for final decision making. Tech and data should bring more and better insights to help staff make those decisions but we see that now staff spend a lot of time with perfectly automatable tasks related to data collecting, transferring, engineering and reporting. Teams should invest to automatize all these processes and give more time to staff to really analyze data, to transform it to valuable information that will become knowledge.

Second one is talent development. Investing in programs to work with start-ups and research centers builds better sports professionals with wider skill sets to be applied to day to day duties. It is also investing in having your staff eager to challenge the status quo. Making them more adaptable to changes the industry will face in the future. Overall, it is investing in having a more resilient organization.

I think that's a pretty great place to wrap a week of talking innovation and technology.

Thanks to you three for taking part in the first of many of these.

Thanks! We'll send you an update as soon as a new conversation starts.