In the parable from the Middle Ages, 6 blind men approach an elephant, an animal they have never encountered before. Each man feels a different part of the elephant and draws a different conclusion as to what it is they are feeling. One man feels the elephant’s trunk and says it is a snake, another feels its side and proclaims it a wall. A third man feels the elephant’s leg and says it is a pillar whilst a fourth feels the ear and says it is a fan. The fifth and sixth men felt the tusk and the tail and concluding it is a spear and a rope, respectively.

When you lead a team of multi-disciplinary practitioners that make decisions on athletes, you can be in a similar position to the men around the elephant. Each person has their own specialism, education, experience and values. This is a blessing but also a curse. How do you decide on the best course of action as a team, constructing a whole out of the constituent perspectives of each team member?

How do you create an environment in which everyone feels free to raise their voice?

The first thing you need to do as a leader is to create clarity around the nature of the challenge. In complex environments where outcomes are uncertain, any decision made will be both an inflection point and, to a greater or lesser extent, a bet. Initially you need to acknowledge this and then give people the freedom to explore the space and offer solutions without fear of reprisals if things don’t work out.

Complexity is also fractal, it nests, we are complex beings in a complex environment, we each have our own unique view and we cannot entirely see what the other members of our team are thinking and feeling. Because this is a complex interaction, the performance of the team in making that decision will be determined by the interaction between the team members, rather than the performance of each member individually. When we come together, the final decision will emerge from between the people in the team, it is a creative process.

As a sculptor approaches their medium and slowly chisels away, over time, the final form emerges as what is superfluous is removed and what remains, is refined. As you lead a discussion deciding on a course of action, you need to recognise what is superfluous and respectfully remove it from the final decision-making process. This takes skill to ensure that all members of the team feel heard and valued, even if their proposal or point isn’t taken forwards. Hopefully there is a team of Foxes rather than Hedgehogs and they are able to weigh up the merits of their own, and others, ideas and take onboard feedback for those they put forwards.

Pixar is the multi-award-winning film studio that made computer animation mainstream through hits such as Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Wall-E and The Incredibles. The founder of Pixar, Ed Catmull says in his book Creativity Inc…

“You are not your idea, and if you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when they are challenged.”

When Pixar releases a film what we see on the screen is a magical and highly polished finished product, the studio has won 23 Academy Awards in the 28 years since Toy Story was released. With the originality and brilliance of the stories it is tempting to think then that the studio has a Midas touch from inception to the film’s release.

What we don’t get to see though, is the dramatic level of change the storyline and film go through, throughout the production process. Catmull explain this as…

“Early on, all of our movies suck. Pixar films are not good at first, and our job is to make them… go, as I say, ‘from suck to non-suck.’”

To facilitate this Pixar convenes what it calls the “Brains Trust”. This is a group of people from across the studio who periodically review a films progress, checking over all the key components of the film (storyline, design, characters etc). They will respectfully ask questions and make suggestions in a spirit of open candour. They help to remove what is superfluous and refine what is essential. Crucially the members of the Brains Trust are there as critical friends, to support the films development, not tear it down, it is a team effort that is for the good of the film. Catmull again…

“If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better.”

Members of the Brains Trust act as naïve experts. They have naivete to a films production that gives them a fresh perspective, but the expertise to offer solutions.

Naivete is not the same as ignorance, however. As a team, when we make decisions it is incumbent on the members to have done the work before coming together, to educate themselves. If we are planning a training week for our athletes, the practitioners in the team must be aware of the context around each player, what they have done over the previous weeks and what is coming up in the next few weeks. This is then added to their own body of knowledge to develop their unique viewpoint.

If a member of the team hasn’t done the work and is simply ignorant, they will not be able to respectfully enter into dialogue with teammates to explore the decision-making space that sits between them from which the decision will emerge.

As leaders we must create the space for the right decision to emerge from the space between us. In a complex environment if we do not seek out the view of others, we are likely to be wrong. We need candid feedback on our ideas and plans.

Unlike the blind men who at the end of the parable end up coming to blows as they cannot agree, if we can create an environment of respectful candour, we can add unique viewpoints together and that will lead to the most satisfactory decision emerging.

Our ideas are only as good as how robust we make them.

1. As a leader in this space, are you the aware of what you are blind to?

2. How well do you signpost the challenge facing your team?

3. If you take a decision alone, have you drawn on all the sources of information you need?

4. As a leader, how are you influencing the decision making process?