Agile in sport: a lesson for failing businesses?

As a member of numerous sports teams during my life, I have experienced the joy of successful groups and also endured the pain of a few dysfunctional ones.

As a member of numerous sports teams during my life, I have experienced the joy of successful groups and also endured the pain of a few dysfunctional ones.

Upon reflection, I identified some common threads running through these experiences. Of these commonalities, there is one which stands out in particular - management approach.

Conventional wisdom and popular macho opinion will tell you that sport requires a strong-minded, command-and-control management approach. A successful leadership team takes decisive action, particularly when a team is trying to navigate troubled waters. This narrative is predicated on the notion that the coach has the most experience, a complete overview of the situation and knows exactly what is best for the collective.

There are certainly elements of truth in this, most pertinently when a team is stable and performing well. In this context, it’s likely the coach will have a solid understanding of the team’s strengths and structure, meaning that resolutely continuing on the same path may be the route to growth and victory.

Yet, what happens when conditions are not quite so predictable? Is the team able to adapt to a different, more unpredictable challenge?

Rapidly developing events and demands for decisions then fall at the feet of a distant coach who suddenly faces overwhelming time pressure. Players feel disenchanted as they lack the ability to influence or make material changes to their own situation. Perhaps, it should come as no surprise this was the managerial framework which existed in nearly all the dysfunctional teams I have played in.

Experience tells me success is found in squads where every individual is endowed with responsibility over his/her particular area, and is expected to contribute to its growth.

A central leadership cannot be the sole arbitrator because the contribution of ideas, thoughts and sentiment is crucial for the team to be successful. The individuals on the ground (ie. the players) hold more relevant and up-to-date knowledge about their domain and need to be empowered to make decisions in real time. This allows the team to be more adaptable and flexible to the unpredictable moves of an opponent or challenge.

Lessons from this Agile-esque management approach of successful sports teams can be transplanted into a business context, and specifically to a business that is experiencing a downturn.

The fundamental principles of Agile management prioritise individuals and response to change over following a plan and having rigid processes. The ability to identify, react, and action upon a problem with such speed is distinctive, and represents the exact requirement for a company experiencing difficulties. Teams are freed from the burgeoning obligation to make formal budget requests and being subject to long-winded corporate planning processes. Instead, they have access to funding which is fixed to their contribution to customer outcomes.

Bill Walsh, the legendary American football coach of the San Francisco 49ers, was a great champion of this approach. He maintained that in order to achieve this, leadership could not worry about the embarrassment of not making vital decisions themselves. In fact, Walsh advocated that a key benefit of this approach was that individuals “knew they could be wrong one time and then, when they got a little more information, change their opinion and not be demeaned for it”.

Egos, therefore, cannot get in the way of a decentralised decision-making approach. And yet, the obstructing influence of egos is more evident in a business context than any other. It follows that if we adopt this tried and tested management style, first we must leave our egos at the door and then, just maybe, we can can win our very own Super Bowl.


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