This is the concluding entry in this series of blogs – where I reminisced about my experiences from learning to play hockey in India, and watching Brazilian soccer transformation over the past several decades.
In the first blog in this series I wrote about the Brazilian soccer teams’ transformation from an individualistic style of play to a network style game. In early 90s, more than two decades since the last World Cup championship title and Brazil faced an interesting juxtaposition – continue with what led to past success of PELE and his peers, or move on with the new rules of the game.
The new rules were clear – minimise the individual wizardry of foot play, dribbling and nimble dexterous touches, and replace these with the power-play of networks of players moving in formations to conquer the opponents by outwitting them, by outsmarting them, and by outnetworking them using a better method.
In the in the same series, I contrasted Brazilian success with transformation with the failure of Indian hockey to transform itself. Under somewhat similar conditions, the selectors, the coaches, the trainers and the players – all struggled to re-produce their stellar success of decades past. Unable to do so, the blame game started and all parties now blame all other parties for the failure.
Lessons from soccer (and hockey)
The parallel between these sport stories and business is profound: what happened with these two games, has also now happened in today’s business world. A company can no longer afford to play the game of business on its own, like a wizard. In fact I just wrote a blog on this topic entitled “A Company Is Known By the Company it Keeps.”
Today, a network of companies comes together, and pass the information and material to each other at various points, which creates the wizardry and allows them to outsmart their competitors in today’s market place. Every company does this – but only those which are most skilful at it win.
Only a handful of companies have fully realised the new rules of the game; and there are no more than 10 people on the planet who can help CEOs achieve this type of business model transformation. Why? Because business model transformation of this type is not easy. In fact it is much more difficult than changing the game plan in soccer and hockey in the example given above. To fully grasp the magnitude of the task you can read this article, and see if you agree that no more than 10 people on the planet can achieve this type of positive transformation.
So what are the lessons from Brazil’s success and India’s failure to transform the model of game?
Some of the lessons I drew are covered in the previous blog here. In brief, here are the headlines:
Understand the change in environment Commit to change
Change the stories and legends
To continue the series here are the rest of the pointers:
Separate the man from his method
Following from the story of China above, the next message to deliver is: no matter how much a man was honoured for a method that worked well in the past, the point is to focus on what works now. Mao Zedong is undoubtedly a much revered figure in China. If you look at the country’s currency note, you will see him. Nonetheless, people also know only too well that his collectivism-driven policies no longer apply to nation’s growth patterns.
Similarly, Pelé is still widely regarded as one of the best players in the world of all time. His signature style, moves and soccer philosophy are still looked up to by generations of soccer fans around the globe. Yet, as much as Brazilian players want to emulate Pelé’s legacy, it has been proven that his method is not working anymore.
Likewise in business, a prominent figure may have laid an important foundation in the past, it will not be wise to stick to the person’s ideology when it no longer applies in today’s situation. Change can only start when people make a distinction between honouring a man and critically review his method for improvement.
Revisit the training
I am one of those who used to play hockey as a junior and it pains me to see all that remains of Indian hockey is the “could-have-been” scenario. I have never learned to play hockey on Astroturf, I have never learned to play hockey as a formation within a team which moves in a very fast and agile manner, passing a ball to each other to outwit the competing team as a network of players.
If Indian hockey wants to make that change, they will have to start from the root: teaching the children who are just getting into the game using the new model, bringing in coaches from overseas who are experienced in applying this model. It is the only way they can catch up to whatever the state of the art in modern hockey is and truly reinstate it as a national sport. The same thing applies to soccer in many South American teams like Uruguay or Colombia, or even Mexico.
So if your business wishes to attempt a transformation, all those new employee orientation documents and on-boarding procedures need to change. For existing employees, periodical training also needs to be modified. In a way, teaching existing people new things is even harder than training new people.
Change the selection/promotion
Closely related to the training of players is how they are selected in the first place. Brazilian coaches essentially needed to look for stronger players who could play as a team, even if that meant overlooking individuals with brilliant dribbling techniques. That does not mean individual sparks or talents would not be given the opportunity, but they may need to adapt if they want to be selected.In the past, soccer players such as Pelé, rose to fame for their admirable individualistic and improvisational style. Nowadays, the most celebrated ones are probably those who know how to play in formations, spearhead a network of strategic players while still retaining some individual brilliance.
For a business transformation, it is vital to bring on board those who not only are experts in their own fields, but also, and more importantly, effective team players. Part of the issue in the corporate world nowadays is caused by the silo mentality. Thus, it makes no sense to take on employees who perpetuate this unhealthy schema.
The selection criteria may need to change to accommodate business transformation, whether for the present or future one. In particular, more focus should be given to one’s ability to coordinate with other departments, and other companies, in a pro-active manner. Perhaps, the awareness of how one’s work affects others helps, as well as the willingness to cooperate towards the same goal.
As an example, which is also mentioned at the beginning of my book “The 5-Star Business Network”, a CFO finds himself struggling to understand why he has been repeatedly overlooked for promotion. While he is a prime figure in the company who had worked his way up from a junior position in the finance department. No one could doubt his high calibre and depth of experience. Yet he just lacks that one quality the Board has been looking for – the ability to weave teams of internal and external experts into a cohesive whole. In other words, he still needs to work on how to get people to play in formations as in soccer, and understand the beauty of networks.
Create the right rewards and incentives
People are inherently motivated by rewards. In Skinner’s famous theories of operant conditioning, an association is made between a behaviour and a consequence for that behaviour, i.e. rewards or punishment. If we apply the concept here, to get the desired actions of change, there should be links to appropriate incentives.
In soccer, for instance, instead of giving all the attention to individual brilliance, coaches, soccer associations and most of all, fans, should praise team efforts. Individuals who are good team players should also receive credit. Apart from verbal reinforcement, financial rewards or advancement opportunities act as good incentives.
Likewise, in business, a range of incentives for desired behaviour must be used. From a pat on the shoulder by the manager, to being named “Employee of the month/quarter/year”, getting a pay rise, being put on an important committee, and being promoted, you can be creative with choosing rewards for different levels of actions too.
Train, train, train in the new method
There will be many instances of conflict during a transformation – whether a conflict of interest, a conflict of generation or a conflict of perception. Change by its very nature is painful. Who can be sure that a brilliant soccer player who has been used to dribbling on his own will drop his ego and play as a team? Who can be sure that tomorrow Indian hockey players will not give up on the new Astroturf surface which requires so much more sweat and stamina to stay on?
There will be resistance, and calls to resist. But it is vital to resist such resistance and resolve conflicts as they appear. Every time you revert back to old way of functioning, all you are doing is prolonging the time it will take you to move on to the new one.
When it is hard to swallow a big chunk of meat in one go, what do you do? Of course, the answer is to slice it into smaller pieces. If the transformation project seems too tall an order, and everyone seems to dread a disruption ahead, then proximate improvement should be applied.
The idea is to divide the journey towards transformation into small, achievable milestones. Once a proximate achievement is reached, then comes the next one until we have the desired outcome. For example, before being able to dominate the new hockey landscape, Indian hockey players need to firstly get used to running on Astroturf surfaces. This first milestone could be determined by achieving a certain amount of physical training to build stamina. Afterwards, they need to get used to controlling the ball with some more hours of practice. Then, the next proximate achievement is when players have learned how to play in formations on the new surface. The list goes on.
Applying it to your business, improvements can be achieved on a department-by-department basis, or process-by-process, service-by-service, depending on your company’s appetite for change.
Find the right people to help you
Even when you may have all the other ingredients, not having the right people to help you build that transformation bridge can leave you stuck with the old model. As long as the old model is the status quo, everybody in the system is inclined to walk within the boundaries. Disruptive thinking, therefore, tends to come from outside.
Experts who know and have experience of creating the new model are needed. These people also need to do the hard part, which is standing up, challenging the old way and guiding people to the new way.
Even harder than teaching a child something new, this involves making people un-learn something they have incorporated into their lives for so long. Hence, it is absolutely vital to correct people every time they fall back to the old habits. For example, every time a player starts dribbling a ball with hockey stick, he has to be pulled back and taught to play in a strategic formation. Undoubtedly, individual brilliance is still widely appreciated but without good team efforts, no single player can turn the tide. That is not to say there is no room for creativity in the new model.
As you can see, getting the right coach for a sport team or the people for a business transformation is paramount. There may not be more than 10 people on earth in today’s business world who truly understand the new business model and know how to apply it to yours. You have to get one of those 10 people and get them to work very closely with you.
Another important thing is to support them every time a conflict between the old and new model arises. These conflicts, whether of perceptions, of generations or of interests, may not be seen by insiders themselves. Therefore, someone from the outside looking in and then getting in to help resolve conflicts is a crucial element.
Just like when climbing Mount Everest, having a guide, or a Sherpa, increases your success rate by 1.5 times, the right corporate Sherpa can increase your success rate significantly. Would you risk getting lost, being hampered by heavy loads, having insufficient equipment or even falling off the edge, while there is a helping hand offered?
Now that we have all the ingredients, and steps, does that mean anyone who applies these will succeed. The obvious answer is no. Because, in the end, it still depends on how well you execute the transformation.
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