What is the purpose of a sports team? In the UK nearly all sports clubs were at least founded as social enterprises in a local community, for a local community. This in part explains the deep ties and passion the fanbase often has for their team. It is a part of their identity.

Many of those turning out for their local team will be taking part for the enjoyment, the social connection and the health benefits. Common to all nearly all clubs as well will be the will to win. The hierarchical pyramid structure of sports leagues rewards on-field success and this is the essence of “competing” in a sport. Any amateur player would prefer a winning season over a losing season any day. As you approach the top of these pyramids and professionalism, winning becomes more acutely important as it is tied to financial rewards.

As the financial rewards for winning (and jeopardy in losing) become greater at the top of the pyramid, winning is the predominant outcome measure, but it is just that, an outcome. There is a reason we discuss the result at the end of a match. The Oxford English Dictionary defines result as…

“The effect, consequence, or outcome of some action, process, or design, etc.” (1)

It is the action, process or design that is of more consequence. Winning in and of itself does not satisfy all the needs of the people involved, and the pursuit of just winning can lead to corrosive behaviours (performance enhancing drugs, cheating, coercive behaviours, body shaming etc).

In 2009 Andy Flower took over as head coach of the England Men’s Cricket team. They set an objective to reach number one in the world test rankings. In 2011, they achieved that target, becoming the first English team to do so. Shortly after though the team began to fall apart and fell back down the rankings ending in an ignominious Ashes whitewash in Australia in the winter of 2013-2014 (this period was captured by the 2019 documentary The Edge https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z4jf9_HnBnk). Reflecting on this later at a conference Flower admitted…

“We won and won and won and in the end, winning was no longer enough – we needed a motivation that was bigger than results”

Not just winning then, but how are we going to win? This ultimately is more important, but how well is this defined?

In complex systems such as sports organisations, the purpose will drive the behaviour of the component parts and the performance of these elements is determined by their interdependence with each other.

Although many organisations may have a defined vision or explicit purpose, this is meaningless if the behaviour of the system does not match it. It is only through observing the behaviour of the system that the implicit purpose can be determined. The alignment between explicit and implicit purpose will go a long way to determining how successful an organisation is in achieving its aims. Donella H. Meadows, in her book Thinking in Systems stated…

“Purposes are deduced from behaviour, not from rhetoric or stated goals” (2)

As mentioned in previous posts, complex systems nest within one another. In a sports-organisation, sub-systems may be the coaching the team, the players, the medical team, analysis team etc etc. This means that there can be purposes nested within purposes, the coaching team to win the next match, the medical team to maximise player health, the analysts to come up with a tactical plan for the upcoming opposition.

If different units have different purposes, then we may end up with sub-purposes that are contradictory to each other. If a physical performance team has a purpose of maximising physical capacities, this can run in contradiction to the demands of the playing style and competition. At best we are not maximising global player performance, at worst we are harming it.

In complex environments we cannot see everything that is going on and we cannot with accuracy see into the future. Each sub-unit will be unable to see everything that is happening in the other sub-units, but together, if their purposes are not aligned, it can lead to overall results that nobody wants. A coach that needs to win the next game, a player incentivised by appearance bonuses, an agent wanting to maximise the reputation of a player and a performance department under pressure from a club over a growing injury rate can lead to playing an at-risk player in the next match, leading to injury.

When leading in complexity, you cannot control all of the behaviours of the units in the system, nor should you want to. There is more power in setting a clear destination or purpose and allowing people to deliver within that. In a previous post we discussed Commanders Intent as a tool for leaders. Captain (Ret.) David Marquet of the US Navy wrote about his experiences as commander of a nuclear submarine in his book Turn the Ship Around! Captain (Ret.) Marquet took command of the USS Santa Fe at short notice when it was the worst performing ship in the navy. To complicate matters, he wasn’t trained on that class of submarine. It quickly became apparent that he did not have all of the information necessary to give competent orders to his crew.

In a complex environment, the people with the most information and thus best able to impact its performance, are those closest to the action. Recognising this Captain (Ret.) Marquet flipped the traditional command and control structure on its head and instead of giving instructions, gave intent. He empowered the people with the knowledge to inform him of their intended action and he would approve or disapprove as necessary. He writes…

“Control, we discovered, only works with a competent workforce that understands the organization’s purpose. Hence, as control is divested, both technical competence and organizational clarity need to be strengthened”(3).

Thus, if you have competent people in your organisation and your purpose is clearly defined, you will be better placed to navigate complexity. Two years after taking command of the Navy’s worst performing ship, inspectors gave the USS Santa Fe the highest inspection grade ever in the US Navy.

Purpose drives intent which drives action.

Questions to consider…

  1. In professional sports teams, winning as an outcome is often treated as a given but how often are you being explicit in the way you are going to win?
  2. How well are the sub-purposes of component units aligned?
  3. Does the behaviour of the people in the system align with the explicit purpose that has been defined?
  4. When was the last time you reiterated the purpose to the people in your organisation?
  5. Has there been drift away from your stated purpose? How would you know?
  6. https://www.oed.com/search/dictionary/?scope=Entries&q=result&tl=true
  7. Meadows, D. H. (2015). Thinking in Systems. Chelsea Green Publishing.
  8. Marquet, L. D. (2015). Turn the ship around! Portfolio Penguin.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash