7 High Performance principles for sport and business

02 Dec 2013 Posted by

I just got back from a presentation to a Barclays Group/Absa Bank Senior Leadership Summit, where I presented some thoughts on high performance principles that apply to both sport and business.  Prior to that, I asked on Twitter for your three key high performance concepts, and got some nice responses.  Sport-centric, admittedly (and unsurprisingly, of course!), but they are the start point for some interesting discussions, I’m sure.

Below is my attempt at High Performance concepts – seven of them (for now), which I believe transcend sport and are relevant to business. In fact, many of these were gleaned from the world of business – in my relationship with Paul Treu when he was the SA 7s coach and now with Kenya’s 7s team, we borrowed a great deal from the world of business, talking with business leaders here in SA and scouring the Harvard Business Review and other sources for insights that would improve sporting performance.

These are seven of many such concepts, highly summarized, by no means exhaustive, and in no particular order, except for #1 being the fundamentally important one.


1. People and purpose

“Better people make people better” was something Treu used to say often.  The start point is always to recruit the right people.  In sport, that’s partly talent ID and player selection (for the players), and partly the selection of the management team.  In business, it’s recruitment, small team formation, consulting, and collaboration across business units, or even companies.

Once the best people are onboard, then they must be bound by a purpose that is bigger than any individual or just winning on a scoreboard or in a ledger, bottom line or paycheck.  Trophies and money are all good and well, but something else is needed for sustainable high performance.  Such purposes are short-term at best, and the purpose should be deeper and more meaningful than that.  We always said that “Why is more powerful than how” and so that’s the key with which to bind great people into great teams.

The four boxes that sum up everything about HP sport are shown below: get the right people in the right places, give them a powerful purpose (the ‘why?’) to ensure they’re doing the right things, and then make sure you do things right.  That’s high performance.

Screen Shot 2013-12-02 at 12.35.11 PM


2. Invest in understanding everything

The margins between success and failure are often miniscule.  They’re also numerous.  Nowhere is this clearer than in sport, where 0.01s, 1cm or the bounce of a ball can appear to be the difference between victory and defeat.  Think of these as the “what ifs?”.  In 2008, Milorad Cavic came within 0.01s (0.02%) of derailing Michael Phelps’ quest for eight gold medals.  It may as well have been 10 seconds, according to the history books.

The remarkable thing, however, is that this difference, often as small as 0.01%, is ‘fixed’ in the sense that if you held the same race 10 times, you’d get the same overall outcome nine or ten times.  How can that be?  In my experience, it’s because that final result is the outcome of all the things that go into preparation, practice and optimizing the performance outcome.  In other words, the result is ‘decided’ before the first whistle in the match, or the sound of the starter’s gun.

The key is to understand all the factors that make up performance and address them in preparation – what are the critical factors, that added together, will produce the desired result?  What buttons must be pushed, and which strings must be pulled?  And the only way to answer this is to invest in finding all those hidden gains.  You’re either investing in the pursuit of “everything”, or you’re hoping for luck.

This is where analysis enters the equation, but it’s crucial to understand that it’s not the answer that matters, it’s the questions you ask.  In business and in sport, the understanding of the ‘inputs’ is called intellectual capital – it’s about knowing what it takes to win, and then optimizing all those input factors.  Not mechanically, but by creating a culture around the key factors, so that you don’t waste time analyzing meaningless things, pursuing dead ends.  Invest heavily in the things that matter, and leave everything else alone.  However, in order to achieve this successfully, you must recognize a crucial mindset shift – don’t try to answer questions.  Rather question your answers.  At every opportunity.


3. Innovate, adapt, change

The only certainty is change.  Rules change, opposition changes, the workforce (players) change, and so success today is by no means a guarantee of success tomorrow.  That happens for two reasons.  One is that success inspires imitation, and so your rivals will close the gap simply by borrowing from, and enhancing, what made you successful.  Second, you’ll get worse, because the tiny little things that got you to the top tend to be forgotten once there.

When a coach or executive says “we have a winning formula”, or “we know what works”, those words often signal the beginning of the end.  Unless they are also flexible, and able to adapt to stay ahead of the curve, what works and wins in the present is likely to be exposed as inferior in the future.  Thus, the key requirement for sustained success is constant adaptation.  It’s about evolution, and the idea that ‘survival of the fittest’ doesn’t necessarily mean the strongest, but the most adaptable.  Companies that are able to recognize this are able to anticipate trends, and change their processes, sometimes even their core business, to maintain leadership in the markets.  Surviving, and thriving, means capitalizing on change, not avoiding it.  If you aren’t moving forward, you’re as good as dead.


4. The paradox of failure

The paradox of failure is that those who wish to be successful are also those who are best able to fail – the “good failures”.  Being a “good failure” means understanding that innovation, progress and improvement are never smooth processes, that failure is inevitable, and is an opportunity to learn.  It’s not really failure, even, but rather the successful learning about what did not work!

Therefore, good leadership means enabling failure in a way that drives future success.  A coach is a person whose primary job is to facilitate failure at the right time, in a safe environment, so that success comes later.  A manager in business is the same – where are the good failures, and how can you encourage your workforce to explore new things, with accepted failure, for long term benefits?

An athlete who pushes their body to the point of ‘failure’ is demanding adaptation that will, provided recovery is optimal, shift the limit in future.  A coach who teaches new techniques or tactics must expect players to stumble and feel their way nervously at first, making numerous errors, before success comes when it matters most.

Two key requirements enable ‘good failure’.  First, the right people – some people just do not learn from failure.  For various reasons, they are unteachable in a given environment.  We moved to the point where Talent ID often involved assessing how well a person would deal with failure or adversity in a given system, rather than focusing on strength, speed, power and skill.  Second, the leadership must create what I call a “fail-safe” environment.  You can’t ask employees to explore new territory and learn new skills without allowing them the luxury of failure.  And being able to fail is a luxury.  Innovation is never successful the first time around.  So good leadership means finding a balance between stability and innovation, and this means allowing some degree of failure.


5. Restlessness

Related to #3 and #4 above, high performance environments are by nature restless.  They always seek the next thing, and never accept the status quo.  Complacency and satisfaction are the enemies of progress.  As Thomas Edison has said: “Restlessness is discontent, and discontent is the first necessity of progress.  Show me a thoroughly satisfied man, and I will show you a failure”.

Perhaps a little harsh, but the key is the word “thoroughly”.  Satisfaction is good, but complete satisfaction means the journey is over.  It is never over in high performance worlds, because the competition never stops.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say that this concept is the essence of high performance, because high performance is not about being the best, it’s about being better.  If you can be better today than you were yesterday, better this month than last month, better this season than last season, then you are achieving high performance.  Not everyone can win, but everyone can be better.

So, adaptation, innovation and the ability to fail exist in this constructive discontent.  In sport and business, discontent drives progress.  The challenge is creating, by design, a collective restlessness in teams, and this is the art of people management – it’s about building a team with the right people, and then using strengths to challenge weaknesses within the same team.


6. Responsiveness

There is a classic hierarchy in both business and sport which is becoming increasingly outdated.  Call in a new new knowledge economy, but the old model, where you had decision-makers at the top, and workers at the bottom is often slow, unresponsive and unintelligent.  In this system, information would flow up the hierarchy, while instructions flowed down.  The all-seeing, all-knowing experts oversaw the activities and plotted the course.

In sport, the CEO is the coach, and he appoints a team of assistant coaches who specialize in specific areas – kicking, offence, defence etc.  They say, the players do.

The problem is that this is not only unresponsive, it’s also inefficient and ineffective.  In a rugby team, for instance, of 15 players, there could well be 250 years of collective wisdom that is best placed to respond to the environment.  Harnessing that wisdom requires a shift in the normal hierarchy of teams, in order to better ’empower’ (hate that word, but it’s true) the players to lead innovative thinking and take responsibility for learning.  In South Africa, and particularly in rugby, we coach the creativity and independence out of our players – they start school with a box of crayons and leave with a blue pen.  One person then shoulders the responsibility of strategic and tactical intent.

Responsive teams are those where the employees or players are independent and tasked with some aspect of strategy and tactics, and thus able to adapt and move instantly in response to opposition and the changing environment.  The world moves too quickly for it to work any other way.


7. Balance

In all the above, there is a balance that must be sought.  Innovation is great, but so is consolidating what you already do well.  Where on that continuum do you wish to lie?  Where is the balance between complexity and simplicity?  Coaches face this challenge when they try to instruct players on tactics, though the idea of “instructing” players should hopefully be on the way out, according to concept #6 above.

There is balance between risk and reward (obvious to anyone in financial investment), between variety and stability, between freedom and control (do you micro-manage or do you let players chart their own course?).  There is balance between failure (see Concept #4 above) and success – you cannot allow infinite failure from your players or staff, and at some point, there must be repercussions.  Similarly, you cannot demand instant success, or you’ll never move beyond the status quo.  This is the balance dilemma.

Leadership in high performance involves deciding where the balance lies for every single attribute, because there is always a compromise.  This is the art of leadership and likely varies enormously from situation to situation.


Barely scratching the surface

And those are eight of many concepts that I think exist in a high performance culture.  Each is summarized to the point of being unsatisfactory, I know, because performing is so complex that it’s never formulaic.  Hopefully the above inspires some thinking and questions – as mentioned, it is the questions, not the answers, that matter.

The exploration of high performance for business, and particularly the lessons that sport teaches business and vice-versa, is something I’m becoming increasingly passionate about, and welcome any interaction.  Also, I do consult to companies on these matters, and feel free to contact me for more information on this, or for speaking engagements where I can explore more of the above concepts (and others not discussed here).



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