Teal Breakthroughs - Elite Sport's Next Moneyball
Updated: Nov 16
For some time I have been convinced that the next frontier of sport performance will come by way of sporting environments and cultures that are truly inspired by a cutting-edge understanding of human psychology. Considering what I have been discovering about how some of the most progressive businesses and organisations in the world operate, I now firmly believe this will be elite sport's next Moneyball (only bigger). That is – fresh insights about the underlying reality of the world that fundamentally shifts how we organise sport, bringing about extraordinary results. We often hear about how much business can learn from elite sport, well this is one area where some maverick businesses have created a blueprint for the rest of us to follow.
It has been evident for a good long while that our current way of working is outdated – based on industrial revolution era practices – and has led to depressing levels of disengagement and dissatisfaction among workers. According to one Gallup poll, only about 15% of employees, worldwide, feel engaged in their work.
After reading the inspiring book, Reinventing Organisations, which in turn led me to discover the work of Corporate Rebels, I have been devouring information about the pioneering companies, non-profits, schools and organisations that have cut out on a completely different track – to revolutionise the world of work, making it almost implausibly engaging, motivating, humane and fun. This is not just trendy startups and local coffee shops that are working this way – but engineering firms, global white goods companies, financial institutions, manufacturing plants, food processing companies, and more – literally covering the full spectrum of organisations, worldwide.
There are three breakthroughs that these enlightened companies have pioneered, and as I learned more about each of them, I have been eagerly envisaging how they could translate to an elite sports team or organisation.
Those breakthroughs are:
· Integrating wholeness
· Evolutionary purpose
Integrating wholeness is about recognising that we are all profoundly interconnected and part of a greater whole. By supporting our ability to bring our whole selves to our endeavours, organisations help us move towards a greater sense of connection with those around us and the world outside. This is a phenomenal source of creativity, energy and is the path to unlocking more of our potential. An example in the sporting world of a team that embodies this ethos is the Seattle Seahawks, where head coach Pete Carroll has built a culture that encourages the players to go on a journey of self-discovery and that accepts them for all that they are. Reclaiming our essential wholeness is an ancient spiritual teaching that has been adopted by these organisations, and in the words of New Zealand rugby coach, Wayne Smith – “Building champion teams is a spiritual endeavour”.
Evolutionary purpose is different from the traditional corporate vision or mission statement. The organisation is viewed as being like a living system with a purpose of its own, independent of that of any of its stakeholders. The evolutionary purpose of an organisation is the deeper reason that it exists, and relates to the difference it wants to make in the community it operates in or the market it serves. Adventure clothing company, Patagonia’s evolutionary purpose is described simply as – ‘We’re in business to save our home planet’. As with any living system, an organisaiton’s purpose co-evolves as its constituent parts interact with their environment. New character and capabilities emerge that no one planned, new ways of accomplishing its purpose arise that no one saw coming. I think of the All Blacks as a sports team that epitomises having an evolutionary purpose, where the connection to the past and future of the team is ever-present, saturated with the indigenous Maori cultural artefacts. The motto – ‘Leave the jersey in a better place’ exemplifies the idea that the team and its purpose exist separately of anyone who plays in it. They are just stewards of that purpose for their short time in the jersey.
And then we come to self-management. This is where the ground starts to get bumpy and our traditional ideas of how things should work (especially in elite sport) get turned on their head. You might be thinking of self-management like in a hockey team where players are regularly included in discussions about their training and match play, and perhaps where some of decision-making power is handed to a senior leadership group within the team. But in the terms of these truly progressive organisations, self-management is in a different ballpark altogether. What we are talking about here is the complete dismantling of the hierarchy pyramid. All levels of manager are removed. There are no bosses who can decide anything on behalf of the people doing the actual work. Not even the CEO, who is also honour-bound to abide by the ethos of self-managed teams, and is usually the biggest advocate of it anyway. Sounds pretty extreme right? Surely there needs to be people overseeing things to make it work, to make an efficient business? But take the example of FAVI, a french manufacturer of car parts, specialising in gearbox forks: FAVI has teams of workers who are responsible for actually manufacturing and selling the products, who are also in charge of their own budgeting, planning, customer service, hiring and firing, performance reviews and salary setting. That is the self-management we are talking about. And it turns out that endowing people with great trust comes with enormous upsides. You tap into the deep well of potential in all of us, and what comes forth is overflowing levels of commitment, passion and energy for the work being done.
Imagine for a minute a football team where the players have autonomous decision-making power over every football-related aspect of the club – how they play, who gets selected, who gets bought and sold, what salaries everyone is on, what upgrades to the facilities are needed, who should be their coach… I’m sure you’re thinking of all the reasons this couldn’t work in an elite sports team, such as how the players could be expected to weigh in on budgeting or financial matters when they haven’t been educated for it. There would be complex issues to solve under this new system, for sure. When you do away with hierarchy altogether, there are a number of matters that must be settled in a different way than usual. With no coach or owner making unilateral decisions, the responsibility falls to every player. Anyone can make a decision on behalf of the club, as long as they have followed the agreed upon process – the Advice Process being one such method of dealing with this issue. The sense of autonomy and the growth that comes from assuming such responsibility is worth its weight in gold, and pays out in heightened enjoyment, sense of purpose and motivation.
Then who steps in when conflicts arise within the team, if there is no one with ultimate power? Self-managed teams must become adept at conflict resolution processes, which often requires specific training. Players would have to become skilful at navigating tricky interpersonal issues in a respectful, compassionate way. This inevitably leads to stronger bonds of connection within the group, higher levels of trust and respect, and a greater understanding of how to get the best out of each other – the true foundation of a powerful team culture.
There would still be coaches under this new system, they just wouldn’t have the authority to make any decisions on behalf of the players. They would offer expertise and support to the team in the technical and tactical domains of the game, just like physios, physical trainers, game analysts, etc, are there to support the players in those domains.
There are many more details needed to be filled into this picture of a self-managed football team, as I bet you have already started to imagine. Corporate Rebels’ 8 Trends provide fertile ground for exploring what those details could be, but there is one trend in the elite sports world that I see as already pointing firmly in the direction I am describing here. For decades now, athletes have been persuaded to stick to their sport, focussing all their energies on performance, and to minimise all other aspects of themselves in the pursuit of sporting glory. In the past few years, we have seen a tidal shift in how athletes engage openly in social and political causes that they care about. To highlight the magnitude of this reversal of cultural attitude, UK Sport have kicked-off a pilot programme to train its funded athletes in becoming effective and compassionate social changemakers – a programme that I am incredibly privileged to be helping to run, in my role with The True Athlete Project.
This all speaks to an enhanced recognition of, and trust in, the ability of athletes to wisely allocate their time and energy, and an understanding that good things come from integrating more of themselves into their athletic personalities. Self-management is simply continuing that trend and taking that trust to another level. To illustrate this, we can look to the implicit assumptions that were made explicit by global energy company, AES –
AES people: Are creative, thoughtful, trustworthy adults, capable of making important decisions; Are accountable and responsible for their decisions and actions; Are unique; and want to use their talents and skills to make a positive contribution to the organization and the world.
I see every reason to make the same assumptions about elite athletes, and I also foresee the incredible growth, connection and sense of meaning that would naturally arise out of it. I imagine the journey of growth an athlete would undertake if they were collectively responsible, together with their teammates, for everything related to their sporting lives. The concept of the dual-career would largely lose its significance, as the developmental experience of being an athlete becomes so much broader than being limited the sphere of developing performance. Athletes would derive incredible value from such a rich learning journey and the profound personal and interpersonal connection they cultivate, but there would also be significant benefits to the club, in terms of the traditional bottom line.
Self-management and Integrating Wholeness release incredible energies, and when they meet a deep and noble purpose, previously unthinkable results become entirely plausible. Now apply that to the unique challenges, developmental opportunities and passion-drive inherent to competitive sport. I believe this would unlock entirely new levels of belonging, mastery, flow and overall performance.
Speaking about the companies that have been pioneering these practices, Frederic Laloux writes-
”These companies seem to fire on all cylinders at the same time. They provide a space in which employees thrive; they pay salaries above market rates; they grow year in and year out, and achieve remarkable profit margins; in downturns, they prove resilient even though they choose not to fire workers; and, perhaps most importantly, they are vehicles that help a noble purpose manifest itself in the world.”
If these pioneering practices are effective in organisations spanning all industries, across the world, there is no reason why they wouldn’t translate to the world of elite sports. There are untold spoils on offer to those sports teams that have the courage to dare.
I am very keen to hear about any competitive sports teams (preferably at the senior level) who are already operating with any of these breakthroughs, so if you happen to know of any then please drop me a line!
- Reinventing Organisations- creating organisations inspired by the next stage of human consciousness, Frederic Laloux