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    disruptive innovationThe challenges of innovating in today’s modern sports organisations is a key topic of commercial success. The desire for disruptive thinking,  innovation, and immediate results, revenue and global impact brings fundamental challenges into view. Who better to address the topic of disruptive innovation in sport than one of the world’s leading research and educational institutions, MIT. Founders of the MIT Sports Lab, Prof Anette (Peko) Hosoi and Christina Chase, share their extensive experience through 3 key insight to successfully achieve disruptive innovation.  

    At the MIT Sports Lab we spend our days at the intersection of academia, startups and the sports industry. We are privileged to sit in one of the world’s great research and educational institutions, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. We see how our collaborating teams, players and companies are thinking about the world ahead. At the same time, we are tied into the world of academic research and education, and the world of startups that launch from this fertile ground.

    In this environment, we constantly hear about the challenges of innovating in today’s modern sports organisations -- the desire for disruptive change, disruptive thinking, disruptive innovation, and immediate results, revenue and global impact. Unfortunately, this way of thinking is self contradictory > The term disruptive innovation was first coined by Clayton Christensen in 1995. In this description, he notes: “The term “disruptive innovation” is misleading when it is used to refer to a product or service at one fixed point, rather than to the evolution of that product or service over time. The first minicomputers were disruptive not merely because they were low-end upstarts when they appeared on the scene, nor because they were later heralded as superior to mainframes in many markets; they were disruptive by virtue of the path they followed from the fringe to the mainstream.”

    This pathway is essential in implementing disruptive innovation. It is important to keep in mind that disruptive innovation is going to take time; the right people and culture need to be cultivated and given the ability to experiment; and working with the partners in academia and startups can lower risk, helping to bring disruption to fruition.

    Disruptive innovation is not immediate. It takes time and requires the right people, culture, and an incentive structure that is aligned to the stage of the work.

    #1 Disruptive innovation takes time: The power meter pathway

    “I didn’t even know how to use the information [from the bike power meter] initially. There had to be a leap of faith that if I collected enough data, I could tell you what it means… I just knew measuring it might be important.”
    Allen Lim, Skratch Labs founder

    Allen Lim is the founder of Skratch Labs and has worked many years in pro-cycling as the team’s sports scientist. But in 1998, Allen Lim went back to school to get his PhD in Integrative Physiology at the University of Colorado-Boulder, after finishing a stint as a registered coach for USA Cycling. His doctoral thesis was on exercise data analysis systems using data from the newly minted PowerTap hub which converts strain measurements to athlete power output data.

    The PowerTap is now prolific and seen as a musthave training tool. Today it is well-understood that, owing to constrained geometries and low mechanical losses, bicycles provide an ideal platform for obtaining high accuracy power measurements for all types of athletes. But at the time of Allen’s PhD, the hardware was unreliable and the software was nonexistent. It took 20 years since the first prototype of the hub-mounted power meter was invented in 1997 for PowerTap to become ubiquitous.

    The PowerTap is now prolific and seen as a musthave training tool. Today it is well-understood that, owing to constrained geometries and low mechanical losses, bicycles provide an ideal platform for obtaining high accuracy power measurements for all types of athletes. But at the time of Allen’s PhD, the hardware was unreliable and the software was nonexistent. It took 20 years since the first prototype of the hub-mounted power meter was invented in 1997 for PowerTap to become ubiquitous.

    The PowerTap is now prolific and seen as a musthave training tool. Today it is well-understood that, owing to constrained geometries and low mechanical losses, bicycles provide an ideal platform for obtaining high accuracy power measurements for all types of athletes. But at the time of Allen’s PhD, the hardware was unreliable and the software was nonexistent. It took 20 years since the first prototype of the hub-mounted power meter was invented in 1997 for PowerTap to become ubiquitous.

    Around the same time, Allen, from being a resident coach with USA Cycling at the US Olympic Training Center, decided to go back to get his PhD at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Having met the hub power meter inventors - Jesse Ambrosina and Gerhard Pawelka - at Interbike, he convinced them and others that he could raise funds to support a women’s pro-cycling team. The team would use the new hub technology developed by Ambrosina and Pawelka; meanwhile Allen would conduct research to determine how PowerTap hub’s validity, accuracy and reliability could improve athlete training strategies and aerodynamic efficiency.

    Disruption is a process. Most every innovation —disruptive or not— begins life as a small-scale experiment.
    Clayton Christensen

    Allen successfully raised funds to support the team, however, the startup quickly ran out of money due to the cost of creating a new hardware product. This could easily have been the end of the PowerTap story, but the Saris Cycling Group saw promise in the technology and acquired the IP of the small startup in 2001. As part of this acquisition, Saris continued to fund Allen’s research which yielded its first publications in 2002. Over the next two years, Saris continued to improve reliability of the hardware which was successfully demonstrated on Floyd Landis’s bike in the 2005 Tour de France.

    This demonstration was essential to restore consumer confidence in the product and raise awareness of the value of power measurements in athletic training. The final piece of the puzzle was to spread the findings of Allen’s PhD research to the community; cyclists needed to understand how to leverage the value of power measurements in their training. Software packages such as Strava served as an essential amplifier to this process when they began incorporating the data captured by PowerTap hubs.

    The PowerTap story is an excellent example of how long disruptive innovation takes even when underlying technology exists, and the market and the need is clearly defined. It was a difficult adoption process littered with numerous prototypes and failed experiments. This is the pathway for disruption.

    teamwork GS

    #2 Don’t undervalue the importance of team and culture

    “I realized innovation is in the organization, advocacy, culture and climate created by community…not the idea.”
    Col. Ron Stenger

    Colonel Ron Stenger needed “autonomous pipe hitters” -- people who were self-driven, were going to do exceptional work with a broad roadmap, and no specific instructions except “go do great things” and “think differently”.

    He was building the team that was going to completely change how the Air Force assessed, selected and trained their Special Operations unit, the Battlefield Airmen. The Battlefield Airmen are the Air Force’s elite ground force. They often accompany Navy SEALs, Special Forces, and Army Rangers to conduct the toughest missions around the globe, and their intensive training program typically had an attrition rate of around ninety-percent.

    He was building the team that was going to completely change how the Air Force assessed, selected and trained their Special Operations unit, the Battlefield Airmen. The Battlefield Airmen are the Air Force’s elite ground force. They often accompany Navy SEALs, Special Forces, and Army Rangers to conduct the toughest missions around the globe, and their intensive training program typically had an attrition rate of around ninety-percent.

    DoD’s investment in people is larger than their investment in aircraft. Concurrently, advancing sensor technology has made it cheap and easy to collect biometric information. Col. Stegner’s vision was to use biometric data to optimize the training and performance of Airmen the same way the Air Force uses data to optimize the performance of their planes.

    “A lot of people get hung up on innovation being a widget or a thing, we were very deliberate at innovating the organization.
    Col. Ron Stenger

    Many studies talk about how important team and culture is for innovation to take place, but they also call out that this importance is often overlooked. The speed at which the Battlefield Airman Training Group team implemented change in a historically bureaucratic organisation, demonstrates the power of the right leadership, people, and processes. Col. Stenger knew that they had to be laser focused on creating the right organisation to think differently. He knew that he needed a team that, no matter what the task, they would figure it out without leaning on legacy approaches.

    The first essential ingredient in the plan was to create an environment and culture where people felt empowered to experiment, to try things that might fail.

    Col. Stenger wanted his people to feel unconstrained and to continuously ask, “If we started with a clean slate, what would that look like?” The philosophy of the leadership was to establish a foundation of advocacy and trust that allowed people to “fail forward.” In the words on Command Chief Doug Isaacks the “lack of constraint has allowed for creativity.”

    The second challenge for the leadership team was to provide direction without obstructing creativity.

    This was achieved by being “stubborn on the big vision and flexible on the details.” Col. Stenger and his incoming commanders took a very deliberate approach to articulate their values and then relentlessly echoed these at every opportunity, verbally, in presentations, and in their actions. These values served a North Star to keep everyone in the organisation pointed in the right direction but critically did not dictate how the values and objectives should be achieved.

    The third element to creating a new culture was to recognize that changing culture is hard.

    Human beings do not like change hence new elements were strategically metered out: “We needed to be very deliberate about how much to change at one time. We knew we couldn’t change too much at once.”
    Col. Ron Stenger

    startup culture GS
    #3 Academia and Startups are natural partners in disruptive innovation

    Not many organisations or teams can tackle disruptive innovation on their own. Incentives and pressures to produce immediate results often discourage investment into answering basic questions and deter risk and failure. However, these incentives vary dramatically across academia, industry, sport and startups and, under the right circumstances, these variations can be leveraged to spur disruptive innovation.

    Academic breakthroughs have no road map. Scientists ask interesting questions and seek to understand how the world works. The X-Ray is amazing, and so is penicillin, and yet neither were discovered with a practical objective in mind. When the electron was discovered in 1897, what was it for? Yet now we have a world run by electronics.

    Scientific discovery is only part of the puzzle. The next step, innovation, is the process of commercializing invention.

    Startups are one path to innovation and complementary to disruptive innovation. This paradigm is well-known to MIT; over 30,000 companies have been founded by MIT alums and researchers which combined have annual revenues of $1.9 trillion (Roberts and Eesley 2009).

    Startup incentives are uniquely additive. Startups bring the desire to make things real, quickly, at scale. This ameliorates the fact that disruptive innovation takes time, and access to risk capital enters the picture. Investors seek risk because that’s how they achieve investment return. They know some of their investments will fail but they are risk seeking and accept failure, trying things out knowing they’re not going to work the first time. Often there are many attempts before you have an eventual success.It is fine to run failed but well-crafted experiments, there could be significant financial returns if it does work.

    Those inventions started with hard, even uncomfortable questions being asked. Those questions that didn’t have easy answers, and then doing small experiments to understand if the right question was even being asked. The simple act of inquiry promotes new ways of thinking, asking the hard-unanswered question, which can also prevent early conclusions.

    Partnering with academia and startups whose incentives align with the invention or innovation timescale that your organisation is exploring can be a powerful complement to your innovation strategy. (More information on implementing these types of partnerships is available in the MIT Sloan Management Review article on Developing Successful Strategic Partnerships With Universities.)

    What comes out at the end is disruptive innovation that solves a problem in the real world. Disruptive innovation takes time, the right people and culture matter, and academia and startups bring the spice and energy to make it real.

    This article was written by Prof Anette (Peko) Hosoi, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT and co-founder of the MIT Sports Lab and Christina Chase, co-founder and Managing Director of the MIT Sports Lab, which helps professional teams, global brands, the sports-tech industry & organisations tackle key issues in sports and engineering.
    This article was originally published in the WFSGI magazine

    wfsgi

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