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The sporting director and architectural innovation

Blitzkrieg means “lightning war”, but despite the German name it was not a German invention. Back in 1917, J.F.C. Fuller, an English officer developed a revolutionary way to use the latest development in military technology – the tank.


Despite evidence the tank was successful (especially compared to  men on horses), the British army squandered the idea and two decades later, Hitler’s tanks thundered across Europe, achieving the kind of rapid victories that had been predicted back in 1917.


Surely this mistake would never happen again?


It did, it has and it will – in fact – it’s a common occurrence. Sony invented the digital Walkman, Xerox the personal computer, and Kodak the digital camera. In each case they failed to capitalise on the idea.




Disruption is an innovation that changes the world (or industry) in such a way, that if successful organisations keep on doing what they always did, they are sure to fail.


This is not because these organisations are full of idiots – they have the people, resources, experiences and reputation to outdo any new upstart. Yet, these giants stumble – in the British Armys case, it was ‘more horses, more hay’, over adaptation in favour for the tank.


One theory is the innovators dilemma – innovations creep in, often flawed, under-developed or implemented incorrectly. But over time they find niches, where they slowly improve and can crush the old giants. Despite this, we can find examples to overcome this theory. Like Sony and Kodak – they seen the change first – they profited from it – but did not make the right response to capitalise on the innovations they found (Harford, 2018).


So why didn’t the British take advantage of the tank?


To understand this, we must ask why is it hard to do new things in old organisations. The stumble that takes place is not because of any radical change, it is because it may require a new type of organisation (Henderson and Clark, 1990).


If the radical change fits snuggly into the organisational chart of yesterday, it will probably produce the same results tomorrow. In this respect, old hierarchies, power, resources, and decision-making remains unchanged (sometimes unchallenged).


So what about the football industry?


At this point your mind may be wandering, identifying and evaluating football clubs. Clubs who have rapidly changed to respond to changes in the external environment, or those who have delayed any change and reduced their capacity to take any competitive advantage. Indeed, there may be some clubs who also prefer not to change at all.  This change could be the people, boards, hierarchies and decision-making structures.


Some may even be thinking about whether the sporting director strategy is one of those opportunities for radical change. This interests us and to understand more we should consider architectural innovation.


Architectural innovation


This demands a new organisational structure. This means old organisations who refuse to change, face an uphill struggle despite their past success. Architectural innovation refers to structural change to the organisation to embrace the innovation.


Armies have been organised for years around the cavalry. The innovations like barbed wire and artillery were incorporated into existing organisational structures. As such, the hierarchy’s remained intact. Yet, the Army leaders struggled to find a home for the tanks – where did they go – into the cavalry, or somewhere else? The same challenge has continued through to today with the introduction of the helicopter and more recently drones.


Someone in the organisation needs to own the new technology, and fitting new innovation into old structures offers very little scope for change – little influence, power, resources – the hierarchies remain intact.


A new tank unit would be seen as a grab for power and challenge the leaderships decision-making status quo. Any new unit would have no history, goodwill or relationships in the organisation. So the tank was put with cavalry.  It was fitted into existing organisational structures.


Interestingly, the folks in cavalry favoured their beloved horses, what they had always worked with, they preferred the animals they had long existing relationships with, ahead of the big metal tank. As such, they did not work with the tanks (which had been proven successful), they opted for what ‘they know’ – ‘more horses and more hay’ (Harford, 2018).


The sporting director


There is a great deal of experimentation with any architectural innovation. We believe the strategy of adopting a sporting director is one radical change that requires architectural innovation. We are talking about organisational and structural change.


This will involve a change of people, power dynamics, resource division and decision-making responsibilities. There has been much experimentation on how this should work or be implemented (or not) in any club at any moment in time.


This isn’t confined to our challenge, for example, in the early days of the automobile industry, cars were built with gasoline, electric, or steam engines, with steering wheels or tillers, and with wooden or metal bodies. Yet, this experimentation period, including plenty of trial and error, mistakes…will  hopefully  lead to learning, improvements and success.


Any period of experimentation comes to an end by the emergence of a dominant design after these improvements. A way of doing things emerges. We could argue the incorporation of the sporting director role has made positive improvements. However, a critical counter argument would identify that we have some niche clubs with success and a lot of work to do across the industry. This is the space that requires attention. Challenging organisational structure and design for a better improved status quo or working towards better dominant and effective design.


If we accept we are on journey of radical change, and architectural innovation is part of the answer within the football industry. We can also accept that there will be challenges, errors, mistakes and more.  These errors will come from everyone involved, including owners, CEOs, first team managers, and of course sporting directors. What else can we expect when we are operating in the experimentation phase and the club-to-club context for the role varies dramatically based on ownership, governance and organisational structure.


If the sporting director role is to be successful, we need to think and work for organisational structures that give those in the role the genuine position to influence.


And when we get architectural innovation and successful structures?


Once we get there and a dominant effective design is established for the sporting director, the initial set of components will need to be refined and elaborated, and progress takes the shape of improvements in the components within the framework of a stable architecture. What does that mean – it means that the focus becomes continuous improvement, development and progress – in the systems, people, processes – quality management.


Ultimately, this will take time. There will be stumbles and there will be successes. The components and practice associated with these successes must be acknowledged and shared (even celebrated) with key decision-makers and where possible implemented.




Questions for those in football to consider: 


This article was inspired by the work of Tim Harford:


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