There are many similarities between the world of sport and the world of business – including when it comes to innovation. Here, the sports performance consultant shares his thoughts and experience.
Simon Jones is no stranger to innovation. Formerly Head of Innovation at Team Sky and Performance Director at AusCycling, he is now a freelance consultant, advising on strategy, leadership and high performing teams.
We’ve spoken with Simon before, when he shared with us (among other things) that at Team Sky, they considered innovation to be continuous improvement. He described how most of what they did was to “try to turn the dial up on what we do every day” – and stressed the point that everybody within an organisation should be responsible for making innovation happen.
Some innovations – what he describes as “pragmatic innovations” – are based around problems that crop up in the short term. A problem arises, a solution is found, and the same approach is used for other, new problems that appear down the line.
However, the key for him is not just to solve short-term problems, but to look at the bigger picture and plan for change. Here, having a clearly defined purpose is vital for success.
Putting the wheels in motion
From a young age, Simon was a keen cyclist. It was a sport that had an impact on his academic choices, too. “I specifically chose French at school because I wanted to go and live in France and race”, he says. “It was a bit of a stretch, but my French wasn’t great – and my cycling wasn’t much better.”
For nine months, Simon was part of a French cycling club in Rennes, getting a lesson in how to race bikes. Here, he realised that his plans to become an elite athlete were never likely to happen. Instead, he switched focus and realised that he wanted to coach. “I rode for a few years, then went to university when I was 22”, he recalls. “I knew I had to go and get information and learn”.
Simon graduated as a sports scientist. “The reason I did sports science is because I tried to be an athlete and failed. I wanted to know why”, he explains. “I initially wanted to understand for my own benefit, but became fascinated with and curious about understanding what the best performers have that others don’t, and what can be changed to improve performance.”
Later, he realised the parallels between sports science and the innovation process. “Sports science gives you the training you need to solve problems”, he says. “That’s at the heart of innovation: trying to solve problems and get to a new level of performance.”
Even back then, Simon realises that he was in the innovation business. “That daily improvement and just trying to be better isn’t just a reactionary thing”, he says. “It needs some sort of planned process.” Innovation is not a new concept – but at that time, there was no structured career path around innovation, as there is now.
A work in progress
Simon describes himself as still being a work in progress. “Everyone wants to think they’d have a useful time on this planet”, he says. “Ultimately, I think it boils down to: are you happy and actually helpful to others?”
He talks of how many people will go through what he calls “the ego stage” in their 20s or 30s. “Here, it’s all about achieving”, he says. “Now I’m at the stage where I think I’ve achieved everything I wanted to achieve in sport, so I’m having a breather and thinking about where I want to go next. But first I need to answer two questions: how can I be happy, and who can I help?”
For Simon, this planning stage is vital. He believes that too many people fail to sit and take the time to plan, instead of jumping into something new far too quickly.
The same applies to innovation work within businesses, too. “You need to understand not just what you’re doing, but what you’re trying to do it for”, he says. “It’s absolutely vital that you really understand the purpose and align to that.”
Without this understanding, employee engagement can be a challenge. Without engagement, achieving a high level of performance can be a struggle.
However, getting this engagement and making every employee feel that their contribution is valued is a challenge in itself. “If you do a strategy workshop, some of the information that is shared vocally can easily be lost”, says Simon. “People will realise that they’ve shared ideas and they haven’t been captured. You need better tools to help people engage because often it’s the quiet people in organisations that have great ideas – you need mechanisms to enable them to share that information comfortably. If you don’t, you could lose out on really helpful ideas.”
This all stems from management, says Simon. “The boss shouldn’t have all the answers. You want your team to be driven from the bottom up. The role of the boss is to coordinate and to create an environment where those really good ideas can bubble up.”
You need good data – and the RIGHT data
Questioning things and being curious go hand in hand with great innovation work, says Simon. “In sport, people will quite often say, ‘Oh, it was a bad day’,” he explains. “There’s no such thing as a bad day. You just need data to give you the reasons why – as well as systems and processes to capture that information. Performance and innovation are very similar in that respect.”
However, it’s also vital to make sure you collect the RIGHT data. With so much data out there – in both sport and innovation – you must ensure that you are collecting information that will benefit you, rather than just collecting information because it is there.
“That comes back to your strategy and purpose”, says Simon. “Once you find your strategy and your purpose, you can gather the information that’s appropriate. Without doing this you end up with solutions looking for a problem: you should always start with the problem.”
There’s no vision without purpose
Purpose and vision are not one and the same. However, both of these – in sport and in business – have seen a shift over the years.
“In sport, the vision could always be wanting to be number one”, says Simon. “However, I think there’s more of a sustainable vision coming into sport, around how people are going to do it and what it’s going to feel like, as opposed to just we’re going to do it, in this way’.”
Simon first experienced this in his role at Team Sky. They had the goal of winning the Tour de France, but their bigger vision was to get a million people riding bikes.
“I do think there’s a shift from ‘we’re going to win this’ to having a broader impact, be it doing more for the community or tackling some of the bigger societal issues, like racism or sexism”, Simon says. He believes that a vision should be short and sharp and easy to communicate – and it should be communicated. “You want to try and engage people with your vision so they know where you’re all headed”, he stresses. “You want to make sure people know why they're doing what they're doing – and getting everyone on board, when they all have different perspectives and insights, can be a challenge in itself.”
A lack of purpose creates a lack of trust
A lack of buy-in and engagement from the entire team can hinder efforts to demonstrate your purpose. A lack of purpose at all can be detrimental to your team – building doubt and creating an untrusting atmosphere.
Defining this purpose upfront and being overt about it has been successful for Simon at AusCycling. “I’ve been really, really clear that we want to try and win medals – we want to be the best”, he says. “I think that was really empowering for them. I started with a team where winning wasn’t really a fashionable word, but that’s obviously what they want to do”.
Within four years, the team did not win as much as they wanted to – but they tried, and they knew what the organisation was trying to do. “Keeping it clear and simple is really key – it engages people”, says Simon.
Simon has also been in organisations where the purpose is not so clearly defined. “When there’s been a lack of purpose or decisions seem quite politically driven, then people make up the narrative – they make up the purpose”, Simon says. “They’re sceptical. And the time they’re spending on being sceptical or trying to make out a purpose could be time spent on being more productive.
The best way to make this happen? Get your team involved in designing the purpose. “If you need a team of people to achieve your goals and the purpose is key, your team have got to design that purpose”, he says. “You can’t just tell them: here are your purpose, vision and strategy – make it happen.”
His advice is to carve out the time to make sure this happens – and that it happens effectively. “Whether you accept each individual contribution or not, you need to give that engagement the chance to happen, and give people the opportunity to discuss it”, says Simon. “There also needs to be constant, ongoing communication about purpose in place: people will forget, or your purpose may change over time.”
Simon’s final piece of advice? Don’t rush the process of defining your purpose. “I think there’s some exploration needed”, he says. “You’ll want to test your purpose before you fly with it. Because once you press go, it’s obviously got to be right.”
He cites the example of British Cycling, which published its strategy to 2024 in early September. “It took them around nine months to complete”, says Simon. “It was an enormous amount of work, as they wanted to engage with as many of their 150,000 members as possible. Looking at what others have done and the processes they’ve used is a great way to get your own purpose right.”
Many thanks to Simon for his time. If you’re looking to manage your innovation process from start to finish, from purpose and vision through to value, find out how Acclaim Ideas can help.