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Reinventing Elite Sports Organisations - a blueprint from a business revolution

Updated: Oct 31, 2022

I am currently reading the most exciting and energising non-fiction book that I have read in a long time. It’s called Reinventing Organisations – a guide to creating organisations inspired by the next stage of human consciousness, by Frederic Laloux. In it I am discovering that there already exists a blueprint for how elite sport could be organised in full alignment with a holistic, compassionate, human-centred approach. Not only is there a road map for this approach, but there are long-standing examples of how it can produce astounding results, even in the most unlikely and traditional of industries.

If you are interested in how elite sport could reinvent itself away from the countless toxic high-performance cultures we are seeing around the world, and become something truly uplifting, valuable and meaningful for all its participants and society as a whole, then read on…

The book starts by describing the fascinating evolution of organisations in line with the stages of human consciousness (each identified by their own colour) and then points to the next stage in that evolution, which Laloux has termed Teal organisations.

In the Teal level of consciousness “The ultimate goal in life is not to be successful or loved, but to become the truest expression of ourselves, to live into authentic selfhood, to honor our birthright gifts and callings, and be of service to humanity and our world. In Teal, life is seen as a journey of personal and collective unfolding toward our true nature.”

The shift to Teal happens when we are able to disentangle ourselves from our egos. We begin to see that our ego-driven fears, needs and ambitions have been controlling our every move, in ways that often do not serve us. When we gain some perspective on this, we realise that we don’t need to be governed by our ego’s need for status, control, looking good and fitting in. What this is replaced by is “a capacity to trust in the abundance of life” and a belief that each and every one of us has deep, untapped potential that can be unleashed with the right set of conditions.

While this all may sound like pretty wishy washy stuff on the face of it, Laloux has gone out and found examples of organisations that are operating at this Teal level, in their strategy, processes, and culture, and that are producing incredible results – in terms of profits, sure, but also results on far more meaningful metrics than just the bottom line. These are organisations across various industries (energy, healthcare, engineering, food production, academia...), with between 100 and 40,000 employees, and who have been operating successfully under this paradigm for a good number of years.

Three key differentiating elements of a Teal organisation are:

Self-management – which replaces the traditional pyramid hierarchy, and is instead based on teams and peer relationships, where almost all autonomy, tasks and decision-making are taken on by those on the front-line.

Wholeness – The integration of mind-body-soul to bring your whole being to work, not just a professional version of yourself, and a striving to connect self, others and nature.

Evolutionary purpose – Organisations having a life and sense of direction of their own – a guide for all actions - which trumps any profit motive. It is not the standard vision/mission statement that we see in most organisations today. It is the expression of what everyone involved understands the organisation wants to become.

For now, I want to dive a bit deeper into one particularly inspiring aspect of self-management, and then envisage how it could relate to an elite sport context. As stated above, Teal organisations have no real hierarchy, no middle manager, no bosses who wield the power. This means that frontline teams must self-organise to a remarkable degree. This requires all the usual tasks (e.g. planning, budgeting, resource allocation, hiring & firing, evaluation etc) to be distributed among the team members. This sounds like it could get messy. How on earth could a team of frontline workers (nurses, production line workers, teachers) make all the necessary decisions without a leader taking the final responsibility? Surely they wouldn't have all the right skills and expertise? Finding consensus on every issue would take an eternity. The answer is through a model of particular genius.

It is called the Advice Process.

“Any person can make any decision, but only after seeking advice from 1) everyone who will be meaningfully affected, and 2) people with expertise in the matter.

Advice received must be taken into consideration. Advice is simply advice. No colleague, whatever their importance can tell a decision-maker what to decide. The point is not to create a watered-down compromise that accommodates everybody’s wishes. It is about accessing collective wisdom in pursuit of a sound decision. ”

Ownership of the decision remains with the decision-maker, who is usually the person who first noticed or is affected most by the issue, and they often follow through with commitment and enthusiasm, convinced they have made the best decision, having taken the best advice on board.

There are a number of profound benefits of this approach. Dennis Bakke, the founder of one of the example Teal organisations, energy company, AES, wrote two books about how the advice process allows self-management to flourish, and points to the following benefits.

Humility: asking for advice is an act of humility, which is one of the most important characteristics of a fun workplace. The act alone says, "I need you“. The decision maker and the adviser are pushed into a closer relationship. This makes it nearly impossible for the decision-maker to ignore the advice.

Learning: making decisions is on-the-job education. Advice comes from people who have an understanding of the situation and care about the outcome. No other form of education or training can match this real-time experience.

Better decisions: chances of reaching the best decision are greater than under conventional top-down approaches. The decision maker has the advantage of being closer to the issue and has to live with responsibility for the consequences of the decision. Advice provides diverse input, uncovering important issues and new perspectives.

Fun: the process is just plain fun for the decision-maker, because it mirrors the joy found in playing team sports. The advice process stimulates initiative and creativity, which are enhanced by the wisdom from knowledgeable people elsewhere in the organization.

Now imagine for a minute that an elite sports team was run on the basis of self-management. The players were given the autonomy to make decisions about how their training is planned and organised, the playing style they adopt, the type of culture they want, and even allocation of the team’s budget, staff hires, how they are compensated and how to bring players in and out of the team. There would be a steep learning curve for those players, as they have to come to grips with all this new responsibility. This is also the case with all new hires in the case study Teal organisations. There tends therefore to be a lot of time and investment into onboarding and training at those organisations. But the payback is potentially immense far-reaching:

- Increased buy-in, loyalty and motivation

- Opportunities for individual players to grow and develop beyond their sport

- Heightened responsibility

- Greater sense of meaning and joy

Not to forget the benefits of listed by Dennis Bakke, above, around making for better decisions, closer relationships and more fun! Bakke goes on to say that the effect on his colleagues he appreciates most from this approach is that “they’re changed people by this experience. They’ve learned so much about the total aspect of the business, they’ll never be the same.”

This speaks to the transformation of people through their engagement with work. This is the kind of noble ambition that we should have in sport as well, that every participant is transformed for the good, having gone through the system.

As Cath Bishop points out in her recent article on the transformation taking place in British Gymnastics-

"We must deploy our formidable marginal gains expertise towards creating better ways to succeed that integrate performance and wellbeing rather than refining bike helmets and biomechanics data. Let us focus our desire to innovate on improving support for athletes to flourish on and off the field of play and offer better role models for mental, physical and emotional health to others in society."

Reinventing Organisations is a fantastic resource for pointing the way to what this kind of uplifting sporting environment could look like in practice.

There is more to come from me on this subject, no doubt. But if you like the premise, then I would highly recommend picking up a copy of the book. And let me know if you want to start a conversation about how this new paradigm could work in practice.

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