Winners

I was lucky enough yesterday to be invited along to an event organised by the Corporate Research Forum by an old colleague of mine from my leadership training days. The lure, other than a good catch up with Sean, was to hear former Labour party communications head Alastair Campbell speak.

Before the event I was chatting to a current work colleague of Sean’s who has a Pilates teacher. Out of the back of one of those stereotypical bloke-bonding conversations about football, it turned out that this Pilates expert has for a year or so been providing his services to the players at my beloved Watford. After much cycnicism from the team, they had really bought into the idea of core body training, and had now started to see it as a key reason why in the successful season just gone, the squad as a while had been remarkably injury-free.

It’s that kind of incremental improvement that Campbell spoke about later, recalling some of the sports teams that he had spoken to in the research for his book, “Winners” (Campbell, given recent political events, was candid about the ironic nature of the title of his book these days). From the England Rugby Team, to Formula 1 teams, to, indeed, politics, the marginal improvement school of thought is very influential in these kind of business motivation talks – what can your business learn about the way in which sports uses data to make continuous, small improvements?

In many ways it’s an extension of the TQM, 6-Sigma type way of looking at business improvement that’s been around for decades. I think that sports metaphors work pretty well with business people because senior ones tend to think of themselves (and often are) competitive types who are out to win.

But there’s a glitch in this: sports in particular (and actually much of the political process) are remarkably codified and structured in a way that business in general is not. 1% improvement all of the time is great, but it’s often diminishing in return and doesn’t deal well with significant disruption to the rules. Step changes aren’t things that happen very often in sports, and are often ruled out of bounds.

Take three examples:

Dick Fosbury, the high jumper, realised that by significantly changing the approach to how to get over the bar (the “flop”) he could dramatically improve his performance. It was the rare example of a step change in sport that to this day still provides the model for how all high jumpers approach the sport.

William Webb Ellis, Rugby School Boy, allegedly picked up the ball and started to run with it. At my school that would have involved Webb Ellis getting a good kicking for being an idiot, but so it was in the legends of sport that Rugby Football was born – it broke the rules to an extent that an entire new game had to be invented.

Lance Armstrong took a lot of drugs. He got prosecuted.

In all but the first case, these examples of significant disruptive change were rejected by the authorities of the game in hand. In business you can see taxi drivers trying to call foul to Uber, and in the last few decades the music industry calling foul to Napster. It didn’t stop Napster significantly disrupting the music industry (who 20 years ago would have called Apple having the clout in the industry that they do today, even with Taylor Swift about?).

The cosy idea that business is played within the rules, either legally or especially in the context of how an industry operates today, is a risky one to believe in. Sure, significantly disruptive forces aren’t the norm and marginal improvement is vital to keep an organisation competitive. But working within the rules leads to thinking that will be blindsided by disruptive new entrants: just witness Steve Ballmer’s reaction those years ago to the iPhone.

When it comes to Campbell’s world of politics, the need to break out of marginal improvement thinking is even more vital. We have increasingly disaffected electorates, a large proportion of people in the second-largest country in our union wanting out, and yet the political agenda at polling time is too often shaped by the need to convince marginal parts of the electorate (generally, older people in swing marginal constituencies) that they should vote red, blue or yellow. Think back to the topics of conversation in our recent election, and then look at what is dominating the actual politics today two months later and see how little corellation there appears to be between the two.

We probably need a few Webb Ellises to pick up a few balls in politics to change that game. It might be starting to happen in pockets at a local level. It might be starting to happen through new digital channels. Politicians themselves will probably be blindsided, and won’t be able to work together to adapt. The final question of the evening to Campbell was possibly the most insightful of the lot: why isn’t there a great sense of teamship in the Labour party? Campbell’s response was that it might have a lot to do with the increasingly limited pool of types of people entering into the established political system being driven by ego (and by my reckoning also often control-freakery), and therefore being the sort of person for who the words “team player” are reserved solely for padding out a CV.

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