Can We Apply England Rugby Success to IT?

Can we apply England rugby success to IT?

There was an incredible upsurge of interest in rugby when England hosted the Rugby World Cup in 2015 and a great optimism about how well the England team would do.  The sense of failure when the team was dumped unceremoniously out in the early stages was palpable.  Another English failure.  And yet, since then and until Sunday, the England team was on a record equalling run of victories and won back-to- back Six Nations Championships.  What changed?

The players themselves were largely unchanged but something happened to that team which changed their whole approach.  They forgot how to lose.  They changed their culture and their mind set.  Even when they were playing badly, the team united and showed a will to win.  Their coaching team brought them together and re-built their mindsets as well as working on some minor technical issues.

Successful teams have a number of common attributes, whether these be sports teams or IT teams.  Perhaps one of the most significant can be summed up in the equation
Performance = Capability + Behaviour.
This equation was developed by Owen Eastwood who worked with, among others, the All Blacks rugby team.  In IT terms, capability can be learned and needs to be re-learned regularly as technology evolves at an ever increasing pace.  Behaviour can also be learned but is often not included as part of the personal development process within IT terms.

Examining job specifications for IT staff you will invariably see a detailed schedule of required knowledge with a small statement at the end that will include words like team player.  Looking at the most successful teams and you will rarely see a collection of the best technical people.  The All Blacks have a mantra – it is not the best players who make the best All Blacks, it is the best people.

Driving change through an IT organisation requires not only the adoption of new and effective technology, but a fundamental change in culture and approach.  Innovation thrives when the organisational culture encourages teamwork and unified objectives.  This unification needs to be not only within IT but across the business.  We need to abandon the idea of IT understanding the business and aim higher at complete integration of the business and IT.  The best people to achieve this are IT staff who understand both the technology and the business and how these can be unified into successful innovation and change.

Vision that encompasses both business and technology is a tough balancing act but it is a necessary one and the vision needs to be created and communicated clearly.  In many organisations there are clear visions, often emanating from within the IT function, but there is an inability to execute because the whole business has not bought into the vision.  A Japanese proverb says Vision without action is a dream.  Action without vision is a nightmare.   Dreams alone will not enable innovation.

When faced with an absence of action, organisations often demand action from IT and the instinctive survivalist response of IT is to engage in action, often without the vision.  Nightmare!

So how can we apply the learning of the England rugby team to a traditional IT function?  We should change our thinking to focus more on culture and personality traits and seek to build teams of the best people, not necessarily the most technically knowledgeable.  Technical knowledge can always be imported if needed but culture must be grown within a business.  We need to re-address our thinking in IT, embrace cultural change and use this to shift IT away from being a support function to being integrated business leaders.

How do we achieve this?  Wholesale change in IT and IT leadership?  If England had abandoned their previous team then it would have taken years to reconstruct a winning formula.  We need to take a long hard look at our teams and understand our current culture.  We can then honestly assess our weaknesses and determine where we need to change but we should undertake this not through wholesale change of people, but through modification and change across the team.
We can retain the knowledge and commitment from the people we have and show them a new way to work.   We develop our team, we develop our people and, as a direct consequence, we can develop our business.

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