Sport is a mirror of society and therefore also one of the best ways to learn about life. As it is simpler, more compressed, it highlights principles so much brighter. The key impressions for me from the recent Euro 2012 tournament are as follows:
1. Discipline allows creativity and freedom
Spain (and also Germany before the self-inflicted implosion against Italy) demonstrated this great interplay of discipline, organisation and creativity, that makes things look so easy, but are only possible because of incredible hard work, dedication, adherence to task and submission to the overall objective. It is the same with the tennis, the easier it looks, the harder the player works to be in the right position to play the shot.
Euro 2012 provided us also with the opposite example. Players deciding they need to win it on their own (something Ronaldo is prone to, Ozil did at times against Italy), therefore refuting the discipline and creating imbalance. It is understandable why the individual does it, they feel frustrated and want to force it, but actually they cause more problems as they require the team to adapt around their sudden outburst and also cover for the imbalance they have created.
This doesn’t mean that I’m against creativity, far from it, but the discipline gives creativity the best platform to be most impactful. To become ruthlessly successful, the new creative approaches, the new ideas, always need to become part of a team’s DNA (Peter Duffy, DMGT’s HRD has captured this balance very neatly in his infinity loop for organisations).
2. Balance is key, even imbalance needs to be balanced.
To be so adaptive requires the system to be stable and flexible at the same time. And the best football teams are just like this. There were so many moments that highlighted this. The inflexibility of Ireland and Greece, to name just two, meant they were overwhelmed by the more adaptable, flexible systems. However, the more flexible teams, especially Spain, but also Italy (something that is missing from Germany) showed the ability to adapt to different situations, yet to remain stable within. They turn imbalance into balance, beautifully demonstrated by Italy when playing Germany. Wouldn’t it be cool, if our organisations could react similarly, when the external environment changes, instead of being dumbstruck, rigid and ultimately break?
3. Out of the comfort zone doesn’t mean trying something that runs counter to previous success, but instead building on this success.
Out of the comfort zone is one of the most misunderstood concepts. Most people think it is doing something crazy (actually crazy here stands as too clever for one’s own good), something they’ve never done before, something that runs counter to their previous successes. For me – and it was a hard lesson learned – being out of the comfort zone is building on your successes and strengths and finding the next level, adding a new perspective, a different creative angle and pushing way past anything imaginable. Germany’s performance versus Italy is a great example. Instead of playing their game, in the formation they were successful in, the German manager decided to change it completely and try something radically different, something that runs counter to everything they did. We all know what happened; worst of all was the effect it had on the team itself. It felt wrong and confidence got zapped, which makes it more difficult to build the disciplined platform for creativity. Spain playing with no striker was the opposite. They also went out of their comfort zone, but they build on their strength, successes and their conviction.
4. Great sides play patiently and play their game – they feel comfortable in their own skin and push themselves within this framework.
If a team has found their comfortable out of comfort zone, like Spain or Barcelona, they play their game from the 1st minute to the 90th minute, because they have faith in their own abilities, they are comfortable in their own skin and they know it will work out. Sometimes it doesn’t, but for the vast majority of times it does. It’s the same in other sports, take all the top tennis players, they stick to their guns & once a player that is renowned to play from the back suddenly plays serve and volley, you know they are tired and likely to lose (see previous point about comfort zone). It is the same in the business world, when we alter priorities, change plans, jump onto the next bandwagon, think about short-term profits and quarterly statements; it is so much more powerful when we understand the fundamentals and stick with our long term plans. That doesn’t mean to ignore new information or be less adaptable. Far from it, it means to be a stable yet flexible system (see point 2 above).
5. Fixing a mistake by implementing how you would have wanted to start, isn’t good enough. Then you really need a plan b.
So Germany is 2:0 down to Italy at halftime. The German manager decides to rectify his mistakes and bring on the players he should have started in the first place. He doesn’t alter the system, he, in a way, changes like for like. And it has no effect. Germany played better, created more chances and most certainly should have started this way and if they had might they might have been the winning side, but the point is, it was too late. At this stage, plan B wasn’t a plan B, it was just plan A with different players. We can see the same in the current economic crisis. Governments implemented austerity measures, now combine them with growth plans, but that’s no different than plan A with different players. Real change and success will only come through structural changes. The same can be observed when companies fail, often exacerbated with the fact that it is believed that discipline should absorb and stifle creative new approaches instead of being the platform for creativity and then absorbing the creativity proactively and creating new structures out of it. Often to achieve these new structures, the old guard, the old skin, has to be shed. England still has to do this, in footballing terms, that is.
6. Giving up order means relying on chance.
After plan B, which was actually just plan A, didn’t bring the result, the German manager then decides to completely give up on the basic set up (I do really like the German word for it: Grundordnung) and game plan, replacing a defender with another striker. So now we have disorder instead of order which means balls are being hoofed into the penalty box in the hope of a lucky strike, for the silver bullet. Just look at Spain as an example, they would just replace a midfielder with a striker and would – with only one substitution – completely alter the dynamics of the game, yet stay true to their planning principles and structure. That is so incredibly elegant and looks elegantly effortless (but remember the first point at this stage).
Everybody who follows football will have their own example (another one I remember well is when Portsmouth lost to Stoke at home and at the end had five strikers, all impeding each other and not a single midfielder who could play a decisive pass.) I’ll never understand it. These radical sporting solutions are like fire sales, all is lost and we just hope that some miracle will happen. Sometimes they do and they become folklore (like ManU versus Bayern in Barcelona), but mostly they don’t and they just accelerate the demise and increase desperation. It ultimately shows that no scenario planning has taken place, as there is no Plan B, there is only desperation. How good is your scenario planning?
To be successful requires creativity. To be able to be truly creative requires a stable, yet flexible platform and as so often in the Ouroboros of Life, we have returned where we started in the first place. Oh, the beauty of it all…;)