Updated: Mar 23
Full disclosure. When it comes to individual and team performance, I love a good sporting metaphor and I usually go to rugby like a bear to honey. Also, it’s probably important to put the fact that I am a proud and long-suffering Scottish rugby fan out there. It feels like a good time to share this reflection after a disappointing team performance against Ireland recently and because, as vaccination programmes gather pace worldwide, we are hopefully reaching a pivotal moment in the pandemic, the return to a more social, less distanced way of living and working.
At the core of any pivotal moment is change, if nothing is changing then you’re just not pivoting, or perhaps you pivoted through 360 degrees but that’s a whole different topic! As individuals and groups, we are hardwired to avoid or at the very least be suspicious of change and that makes total sense. To embrace change is to move away from the familiar and towards the unknown, it is fundamentally to accept and take risk. From an evolutionary standpoint accepting too much risk or the wrong risks is not a behaviour that is rewarded.
It’s the age-old story of caveman hunts sabretooth tiger, sabretooth tiger eats cave man, caveman’s family paints moving memorial of caveman on cave wall.
The paradox here is that without embracing change intelligently there is no evolution. Change for the sake of change however, is disruptive it can rob us of the consistency and rhythm that performance is built on. In order to remain relevant, to be competitive, dominant even we need to be able to recognise where change is our ally and embrace it. In an ideal world we will do this more quickly than those around us.
So, what can you do to improve your chances of successfully navigating pivotal moments?
Situational awareness allows us to recognise that there is a need to change and there are things you can do to improve your level of awareness.
Look up – In busy environments it’s all too easy to put our heads down and do what we know. It’s critical to take time out periodically and assess what’s working and what’s not. If something is not working then why not? What has changed?
Understand significance - Once you see a change you need to be able to quickly assess what it means in terms of your objectives. Is it scenery or does it present an existential threat?
Recognise opportunity - We tend to see the threats posed by a change in our surroundings, if we can balance this with an awareness of how the situation can be turned to our advantage we are instantly in a much better place.
If situational awareness allows us to recognise the need to change then adaptability gives us the ability to do so. Again, there are facets to adaptability that are useful to understand.
Understand the fundamentals - When a changing environment makes your complex strategies ineffective, chances are the fundamental rules will still apply. They can guide your actions.
Plan B – have one, possibly even a Plan C! When unexpected events force you to adapt having done some form of advance planning will put you on the front foot. Even if your backup plan isn’t exactly what’s needed having been through the process of creating it will make it that much easier to think on your feet!
Create capability – you need to be able to execute your back up plan and this doesn’t happen by accident, or for free. It’s important for you to understand the skills and resources you need to react effectively and to invest in putting them in place.of the game you are playing.
Sport is an excellent lens through which observe these principles in play. Stories that might take weeks or months to unfold in other arenas, can be watched over the course of a couple of hours and analysed one replay at a time. When current England Rugby head coach Eddie Jones took charge of his new team possibly their biggest challenge, I believe, was their ability to adapt when they were met with the unexpected. England are a fabulous team with a squad of strong, talented players that most teams in the world look at with envy. Able to play their game on their terms any team in the world, including the revered All Blacks, will be in for a long 80 mins. An on-form England team are a force to be reckoned with. However, adjusting in the moment to the unexpected continues to dog them..
Probably the most iconic example of this was their 2017 six nations game against Italy, dubbed ‘ruckgate’ by some because the Italians refused to commit players to form rucks at the tackle area. Rucks are often seen as the backbone of the current game, so this was, understandably, a confusing development. With no rucks formed Italian defenders were able to pour into the English backfield preventing them from executing their plan of attack. The situation escalated to the point where England flanker James Haskell asked referee Romain Poite what they could do to remedy the situation and Poite responded, now famously, “I am not your coach”.
A more perfect illustration of how stuck the players felt in the face of this unexpected change would be hard to find!
In the case of ‘ruckgate’ effective situational awareness would lead you to understand that the inability to execute your game plan was a clear existential threat to your objective of scoring enough points to win the game. It would also highlight an opportunity. the Italians tactic actually created space around the tackle area. Going back to the fundamentals may well have led to the conclusion that the most effective plan was to attack the space closest to you. Then it would have been time for an Italian pivot!
In that moment what England really needed was their coach, someone not caught up in the heat of the match, who could see things objectively, give feedback and help them formulate Plan B. Instead, we witnessed a capable team becoming unstuck in the heat of the moment.