Innovate It Like Beckham

Take a look at David Beckham’s goal against Greece that sent England to the 2002 World Cup Finals:

If you ask famous athletes how they do things like that, they find it difficult to explain. How can you make a ball dip a meter while curving two? Who knows? Actually, there are some researchers that know – four physicists published two articles shortly after that goal called ‘The Curve Kick of a Football’ (summarised here). According to their simulations, to get that kind of spin, you kick the ball like this:

So if the physicists can explain it, and anyone can read how to do it, why can’t we all bend it like Beckham? According to John Kay in his new book Obliquity: Why Are Goals are Best Achieved Indirectly, it’s because it’s impossible to navigate complex systems rationally. In order to succeed in complex systems (like top tier athletics, or, more importantly for our purposes here, the economy), you succeed through expertise, practice, and judgment. When Beckham kicks it like that, he’s not solving a long series of differential equations in his head on the way to the ball – he’s applying years and years of knowledge and judgment based on experimentation and practice.

This is why experimentation is an essential part of innovation. It’s also why we need to innovate. The economy is a complex system, which makes achieving our goals difficult. Kay contrasts two approaches, the rational direct approach, and the oblique experimental one:

Direct action

* Objectives are clear
* Systems are comprehensible
* We know the available options
* What happens happens because someone intended it
* Rules can define the system
* Direction provides order
* Good decisions are the product of good processes

Obliquely does it

* We learn about our objectives as we strive for them
* Systems are complex and depend on unpredictable reactions
* We can consider only a few possibilities
* There is no clear link between intention and outcome
* Expertise is required, tacit knowledge is essential
* Order often emerges and is achieved spontaneously
* Good decisions are the product of good judgment

One of the reasons that people are often uncomfortable with innovation is that it doesn’t fit with the rational direct approach. We can’t show a net present value calculation that demonstrates guaranteed returns, we are actively courting uncertainty, and the links between what we are trying to achieve and our actual outcomes are unclear and difficult to unravel.

This requires an oblique approach. We need to settle on our general goals, and then experiment. As we learn what works and what doesn’t we build up our tacit knowledge and our judgment. Experiment, learn, improve. That’s how to innovate like Beckham.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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