Conversation #5 — Simon Jones, Head of Innovation, Team Sky
If there’s one organisation whose name is a byword for innovation right now, it’s probably Team Sky. In just six years, this professional cycling team has achieved what many initially thought was an impossible ambition: the first British Tour de France winner in history (Bradley Wiggins in 2012), a feat repeated just a year later when Chris Froome took the title. Innovation and new ideas have played a huge part in Team Sky’s success, so I was really excited to get the chance as part of my work at Solverboard to chat to Simon Jones, Head of Performance Support and Innovation at Team Sky.
What emerged for me really clearly while talking to Simon was that Team Sky inspires a huge amount of enthusiasm from its fanbase and has a really dedicated team, but that the key is to focus that energy around the problems that really need solving. The concept of marginal gains, now widely understood but absolutely revolutionary when first implemented, relies on identifying multiple areas where improvement is needed, and then finding many small scale solutions rather than huge revolutions.
So Simon, what does innovation mean at Team Sky? Can you give me an overview of what your role covers?
Broadly speaking we consider innovation to be continuous improvement — that sounds like a really boring description but when you look at what we do that’s really the core of it: what are the things that we currently do that we can improve on? We also do a lot of horizon scanning to understand what broader opportunities are from new technology or approaches, and go through a process of filtering to work out which ones are applicable.
So we look at new developments in wearable technology, new materials, bike engineering and the rest, but mostly we try to turn the dial up on the things we do every day, and improve critical things such as our tactics, or work out the optimal position on a bike.
Really though, no one should be called Head of Innovation. We’re all involved in improvement, I’m not totally responsible for innovation, everybody is — it should just be part of what you do. Having said that, I spend about three quarters of my time external to the team, looking for new approaches and technology, new horizons and understanding, so that’s why my role is focused on innovation, because you need that external reference to see what’s possible.
You’ve had a highly successful coaching career — how did you get interested in innovation, specifically?
I’m one of those people that’s always looking to improve what we’re doing. Whenever we finish a race, I’m always thinking ‘that was great, we won the Tour, but this aspect wasn’t good, we could have done this instead.’ No matter how successful we’ve been, we identify things that we could have done better, and I’ve got that kind of appetite for improvement. It’s quite good fun really. Lots of people who succeed in sport and other industries have that approach, I think, they’re never satisfied.
In terms of how I got into it, I was probably in the right place at the right time. I’ve got a wide range of interests and experiences: I was a sports scientist, I was a cyclist, I was a coach, I managed a multi sport facility which means I’ve got experience in management, managing people and teams, so after 20 years I know a little about a lot .
Of the innovations that have made a difference, are they generally new advances in technology, or different approaches using existing tech?
The weighting is really clear — it’s about 90% current stuff and 10% new technology. I love new gadgets but they mustn’t disrupt what you do, or rather they must only bring positive disruption. You’ve got to get either an efficiency or an improvement from it. If you’ve got to train people and get people to manage new technology, that’s disruptive and time-consuming, so we’re very aware that everything we do has to improve efficiency.
There’s some amazing technology out there: for example I’ve just spent two hours meeting with a scanning company, but in terms of budget and the time it would take to train people to use their tool, the technology is more suited to NASA than a bike team. The improvement would be outweighed by the cost.
So we always have to think quite broadly about anything new: how much quicker will this make us go, how many problems will it help us solve. There’s lots of elements we could improve upon that needn’t have a super complicated technical solution. Sometimes the simplest solutions are the most elegant and efficient.
We’re all very drawn to new technology these days so part of my job is to be very sceptical — I love technology and science and engineering but there’s huge amounts of PR and marketing around every new gadget, and I have to think quite deeply about what it is we’re trying to do. You could introduce a new technology to the team, but that involves training, culture change, a disruption to routine. We’re all working in an eco-system and all our roles are connected — if you want to introduce a major change you’ve got to make sure the outcome is worth more than the pain.
You recently said “Some of the best innovations came from people on the ground. We have to nurture these ideas and create a mentality that encourages thinking about problem solving”. Have you ever had a brilliant idea come from a really unexpected source?
Absolutely. I meet brilliant inventors and innovators all the time but they’re not working in our team, they don’t necessarily know what our challenges are. The guys on the ground, they work 16 hour days, and they’re the greatest source of innovation: if I can make their lives easier in any small way, that’s one of the most valuable innovations there is.
For example, when we’re carrying out reconnaissance we use a number of sources, e.g. Google Earth and GPS. It’s time consuming, so what we did was pull all the sources together into one system, which saves the ground crew about an hour a day. No new technology, just a more efficient way of using what we already had in place, and that means they’ve got an extra hour in a hectic schedule.
Understanding that problem came from the team on the ground, so I try and go on the races quite a lot just to see and hear people’s problems, and then I’ve got the time to scuttle off and try and find solutions for them. Often they have an idea of what the solution might be but they haven’t got time to go and develop it themselves.
How do you manage ideas at Team Sky — can anyone contribute, and how do they do that? Do you have a way of finding and nurturing ideas at the moment? How do you go about it?
Anyone within the team can contribute, and they do. The guys on the ground and the cyclists suggest things — a lot of the athletes’ feedback is about the environment: hotels, food, equipment, tactics, in-race communication, strategy, rather than the technology.
In terms of ideas from outside the team, it’s a bit sporadic at the moment — people tend to randomly email us things. Quite often, though, they’re solutions looking for a problem to solve so they can be a bit hit or miss. One thing I want to do give people more of an idea of what our problems actually are. I still like to listen to the weirder ones: sport can be very traditional so it’s good to hear from some really out-of-the-box thinkers, but we have a fantastic and engaged fanbase and if we can harness that energy in a planned way to find solutions that would be great. That’s one of the elements of Solverboard I really like, that it offers a way of making visible the challenges we need to solve, so people can contribute to the solutions. I was at Innovate UK recently and am always amazed at the depth of knowledge and complexity of what people do and feel sure that there’s loads of great solutions out there we could tap into.
On another note, one of the areas I’m thinking of asking our fans about is how they would like to see the fan engagement side develop, and what excites them about Team Sky and cycling generally.
Do you have a process you go through for identifying ideas that you’re going to explore? What are your criteria?
I always have my radar on for ideas, whether I’m in meetings or at conferences or on the phone. I write things down and then review them, but we do need to have better methods for capturing and assessing ideas. I tend to consider things in the moment quite quickly as they come in, which means if they fit a current need then I’ll give it some consideration. If it could be useful I’ll file it away for later, but I don’t always remember. We need a system for capturing ideas for the short, medium and long term: there’s probably people I met six months ago that had an idea that might be useful now.
If we start asking people for ideas around specific problems we’re trying to solve, that would lay the foundations for a much better system.
What proportion of ideas that you try out result in some positive benefit, roughly?
Not many ideas make it through and get properly embedded into the team. We’re constantly improving things and tweaking things, but in terms of completely new ideas, it’s a very small number. There are much bigger opportunities for us around improving what we’re already doing — for example tyres, power meters, clothing, training science all have aspects that could be improved — than about adopting something completely revolutionary.
The real test is in how we implement that on the ground: getting people to buy in and adopt something consistently is a real challenge. The easy bit is finding the improvement — where it gets hard is implementation, execution and making it stick. People love new ideas but if the idea we came up with last month hasn’t bedded in yet then it can be tough to rein them in.
How involved are your sponsors and partners in the innovation processes — do they come to you with ideas or do you go to them with needs or challenges?
The word partner is about a two-way process for us — we only want to work with people that want to improve their products and have that appetite for innovation. It’s an ongoing relationship rather than just a product deal. We’ve just announced Castelli as a new clothing sponsor, and their attitude is very much that they want this relationship to push them and challenge them, and that’s exactly what we want too: people who aren’t happy with the status quo.
So for example, there isn’t a really good cold weather glove on the market right now — it’s difficult to make gloves that are protective and warm but also allow dexterity. You can make a warm glove but if the cyclist can’t get food out while wearing it then your problem isn’t the cold, it’s the lack of energy, and that’s what does for you in winter conditions. So identifying the problem correctly is really important — if we keep thinking about it in the same way we’ll just get the same old answers.
Where do you see new technical developments having the most impact in the future?
New materials, especially if they can reduce bike weight, are always really important to us. Graphene, for example, is 12 years old now: the real innovation with graphene is working out how to use it and whether it would have advantages for us. It might not reduce the weight but it might make the bikes more durable, for example, or make the tyres lighter.
We’re also looking at our in-race communications as when you get into the mountains, it all gets much harder. There must be people out there who know far more about communicating in difficult terrain than us, for example the military, so there must be some cross-pollination that can happen there.
Finally, we really want to do more to promote open innovation, by posting open innovation challenges or run hackathons to really turn the heat up on a few areas. It’s still early days but it’s about having a plan or a strategy to engage people in innovation from all walks of life.
Thanks so much for your time Simon. Finally, what are you most proud of having achieved so far?
The word proud makes me a bit nervous, perhaps satisfied would be a better word. Having said that, I am really proud of British Cycling and being a part of that success, and leaving a bit of a blueprint for others to change. Winning Coach of the Year was a really humbling experience, too. To be honest though, I’m just really lucky to have a job like this.
These articles are supported by idea management platform Solverboard. I spend some of my time working with Solverboard and they have kindly agreed to support this side project of mine, so do check out their suite of idea management tools when you have a minute.