What can sports teams teach the social sector this decade?
Sport is often a great metaphor for leadership and teams. Even if you don’t like sports, its pervasiveness and visceral simplicity make for good stories and clear lessons.
With most sporting attention on the Men’s Football World Cup in Qatar, I want to suggest that the far more interesting story (from both a sporting and a metaphor about teams perspective) is happening in Pakistan with the England Men’s Cricket team.
It’s the third big sporting idea in my professional lifetime that resonates with the broader societal moment. Like the others, it has strengths and weaknesses that we should all be aware of before grasping the value of the metaphor too quickly.
Investing in experts
In 2003, the England Men’s Rugby Union team won its first world cup in Australia, thanks to a gloriously dramatic drop-kick from Jonny Wilkinson at the end of the game.
In the UK, we were in a position of having six years of a Labour government investing heavily in public services and a pretty strong economic situation. It was also the start of the political upheaval created by the invasion of Iraq. The team, managed by Clive Woodward, taught us the importance of investment in experts. They were the most incredibly invested-in unit, with the start of a revolution of ‘teams around the team’: more nutritionists, psychologists, sports scientists, kicking experts, etc., etc.
The great lesson was to trust and surround yourself with experts – with it you could change big things. Very New Labour. The risk of that lesson was the privilege of assuming that others could invest in expertise.
Expertise is excellent if you have the resources and contacts to access it.
Roll forward thirteen years, and we were asking whether we trusted all those experts. What privilege came from that? “That’s your GDP, not mine!”
In 2012 we got another coach, David Brailsford, a different sport (cycling), and some more sublime and memorable moments. Whether the Bradley Wiggins Tour de France Victory or the multitude of successes in the velodrome at the Olympics, there was a time when cycling was something that Great Britain was a world leader at.
The reasons for that were simplified down to one phrase: “marginal gains”. There have been several books written about it, so I’m not going to add to that mountain. Still, the fundamental idea was looking for small improvements everywhere, adding to a more significant overall change. It fitted nicely with the language of austerity at that moment. Do more with less, innovate, test and learn to get feedback.
It’s the same thinking that led to the interest in the What Works centres in the public sector in the UK, an interest in behavioural science, and a whole range of other things. The problem is that many of those things weren’t replicable. It encouraged an ‘interesting’ approach to ethics by pushing boundaries for the next margin
In my view, it didn’t challenge anything. It held assumptions in place and tried to make things a little bit better. It was a disempowering view of change. Very Coalition.
Ten years further on again, we have the resurgence of a cricket team that was pretty poor not that long ago and has now won seven out of its last eight test matches and is doing something qualitatively different in how it makes decisions and plays the game. The philosophy has been named the rather ugly ‘Bazball’ after the coach Brendon McCullum. What is interesting is how he is so dismissive of his role. He’s creating the space for people to play expansive cricket.
The players are talking about freedom and self-expression. They are talking about taking risks. The captain, Ben Stokes, repeatedly says that he is prepared to lose in order to create the space to win. That is so strange for those of us who have watched English cricket for several years.
That freedom is causing them to innovate in a way that feels so different from the world of marginal gains:
This approach fits with a world where we need both expertise to solve problems, and to be thinking about systemic change rather than just tweaks, but also to think differently about what the problem is, and how we approach risks.
The drawbacks of this approach are that it can be isolating and can place the failure on us, rather than the conditions and systems around us.
The opportunity, therefore, of this moment is to embrace the radicalism of the English Cricket Team. To work out what we’re good at, build around that in wildly innovative ways, take risks that change the calculus of a problem, attack a problem with clear intention, and be willing to lose something in service of a bigger goal.
If that doesn’t sound like what the UK social sector needs right now, then I don’t know what does.
Most importantly, if we don’t work on this together, we’ll get lost in the hubris of individualism. If we try and tackle some problems together, maybe, just maybe, this could be a revolutionary moment.
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