ISH: Lessons from Sport & Business

09 May 2019

By: Sport Industry Group

In this exclusive interview for Sport Industry Group, the Co-Founders of the Institute of Sports Humanities (ISH) reflect on the diversity of their backgrounds and explain how intellectual breadth, and the value of surprise and adjacency, are at the heart of ISH thinking.

Ed Smith is an ex-professional cricketer turned writer and now England cricket selector; Andrew White is an entrepreneur; Sir Anthony Seldon is a political historian and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham.

People often learn most by engaging with fields beyond their narrow professional spheres. Innovation is driven by sharing ideas and information that had not previously been joined up. This is especially true now that detailed and expert information is so freely available: the ability to make surprising connections becomes increasingly valuable. Our age of ultra-specialisation, paradoxically, increases the need for wide-ranging thinkers.

Smith explains how that type of thinking influenced the foundation of ISH: “When Andrew White and I first discussed how ISH might evolve, some of the analogies between sport and business were striking. Elite sports performance is always responding to new data and technology. But far from eliminating the need for judgment – you don’t pass over responsibility to an algorithm – new types of information amplify the need to critically assess and judge what really matters.”

Both Smith and White are fascinated by new technology. But White, who founded and built WSM Communications before its sale to Bill Gates, is attuned to the balance between data and intuition. “What’s interesting is that many of the best and most important business ideas didn’t start from ‘what the numbers say’ or a cold business case. Instead, there’s an instinctive conviction that the idea warrants investment and exploration.”

Smith connects this theme to a question that is going to become ever more fundamental: as Artificial Intelligence gathers pace, how will the context and value of human intelligence change?

“Yes, we should attend very closely to the potential and value of new technology,” Smith argues, “but we also need to nurture the parts of our minds that are not machine-like.”

“If you want to have a valuable job in the future, one place to start is by thinking about what computers can’t do. The growing computational power at our disposal brings new relevance and value to unprogrammatic thinking – the power of analogy, intellectual playfulness, and making serendipitous connections.”

Elite sport, like other high-performance industries, has often struggled to distinguish between real scientific gains and the myth that useful knowledge can always be reduced to a scientific approach (“scientism”). Smith adds: “Some of the best thinkers in both sport and in business retain the ability to make complex decisions without believing there is – or can be – a demonstrably ‘right’ answer. They have a broad intellectual framework and the ability to live with the fact that all judgments have a range of possible outcomes.”

It takes a peculiar but powerful form of intelligence to know what you don’t know as well as what you do know. Pretending a problem can always be turned into an exact science reduces rather than increases the likelihood of making an appropriate judgment.

Besides, in the pursuit of competitive advantage, second-level thinking has a longer shelf-life than the next big idea. Here again there is an analogy between decision-making in sport and decision-making in business and investment. Howard Marks, the founder of Oaktree Capital who is set to give a lecture at theInstitute of Sports Humanities, puts it like this: “One day, everyone will have the model that you’re using. So superior judgment, ultimately, is the only form of consistent differentiation.”

ISH’s inaugural course, MA Leadership in Sport, (15-months, non-residential, London-based) begins this October and is currently open for applications.