Interconnectedness in complex systems ensures that in a high-level sporting environment, performance of the athlete’s and team is impacted by all interactions that occur in the system, both directly, and between others. To paraphrase Rugby Coach Eddie Jones…

“Every conversation has the potential to impact performance positively or negatively”

Often in these environments we are organised as a hierarchical unit, like many other companies and organisations. Each department has a leader who, in turn, often reports into the head coach or sporting director.

As professional sport has developed and the quest for a performance edge has grown, there has been a proportional rise in number of departments and subject-matter experts employed by clubs either in-house or as consultants. My Grandfather, who was a successful 1980’s football manager, told me that his staff consisted of himself, his assistant manager, the kitman and a physio. So not even a goalkeeping coach.

The modern sports team will include departments of coaches, medical staff (doctors, physios, therapists etc), sports science staff (S&C coaches, Scientists, physiologists, biomechanists etc), video analysis, data analysis and psychologist to name a few. 50+ staff around a team of players would not be uncommon. The challenge for the coach and sporting director is to coordinate these departments to maximise performance.

One leadership approach could be to try and control the system, a command and follow model that many would associate with a military-like hierarchy. However, the size and complexity of the modern sports organisation makes this impossible to do in practice.

Boundaries are constantly being drawn and redrawn on complex systems, every time we make a decision, we are drawing a boundary. As leaders in these environments, we must be aware of when we are drawing boundaries (e.g. deciding who we do and don’t invite into a meeting) and try to anticipate some of the ramifications our decision will have.

Complex systems are also constantly evolving. Wherever you place a boundary, you create a defined snapshot of the system at that moment, but this has the potential to change quickly. The harder we design our boundaries to stick, the more likely we will be caught out by the evolving system.

Boundaries can be both horizontal (between departments) and vertical (up and down the hierarchy) and can be physical (where people are located relative to each other) as well as metaphorical, or implied. If boundaries between departments are too large or rigid, they won’t be able to cross them to effectively collaborate.

Key in complex systems is that the person closest to the action has best chance to influence the system at that moment (the person having the conversation with a player in Eddie Jones’ example) and often has the most up to date information. If boundaries exist (hierarchy, psychological safety, physical distance) that stop someone from acting on new intelligence, the system slows down.

In his book Team of Teams, General Stanley McChrystal outlines how he reoriented the military effort in Iraq from top down to decentralised, to turn the tide against the Al Qaeda insurgency.

“The temptation to lead as a chess master, controlling each move of the organization, must give way to an approach as a gardener, enabling rather than directing. A gardening approach to leadership is anything but passive. The leader acts as an “Eyes-On, Hands-Off” enabler who creates and maintains an ecosystem in which the organization operates.”


General McChrystal also saw the problems with boundaries in the complexity of a warzone. Intelligence gathered in the field was taking too long to pass up the chain of command to the decision makers. Realising this and reversing it, pushing decision making power to the frontline, was central to the upswing in the coalitions campaign.

“Organizations must be networked, not siloed, in order to succeed.”


As leaders in sports organisations we need to help break down firm boundaries that inhibit collaborative decision making that will enhance performance. However, this needs to be carefully balanced with ensuring appropriate boundaries exist. There would be no competitive advantage and a loss of confidence if the organisation was a complete open book.

Head coaches and sporting directors need to create a networked environment of collaborative decision making and ensure that the right people are involved at the right time.

Further Thinking

  • How aware are you when you make a “boundary” decision?
  • Have you reconciled your decision with the impact it may have on the system?
  • How can you ensure that you are identifying and removing boundaries that are hindering the success of the organisation?
  • How do you decide who is involved in a decision making process at any given time?
  • Where are the horizontal and where are the vertical boundaries?