What can we learn from the best sports team the world has ever produced?

This weekend the New Zealand All Blacks take on Australia in the 2015 Rugby World Cup Final in London. It’s a scintillating prospect for any rugby fan, but the All Blacks will remain the most successful pro level sports team in the history of the world no matter what the outcome.

They are the reigning World Cup champions, with a 93% win ratio since that victory 4 years ago - an extremely unusual feat as successful teams nearly always experience a dip in form after reaching the pinnacle of their sport.

It’s also not a case of an unusually talented cohort dominating everything that came before them — like the current Spanish football team for example. This is an institution of winning that spans multiple generations — their win ratio for the last 115 years is 76%. To put that in perspective the Brazilian football team has a win ratio of 63%

To compound these achievements, New Zealand has a population of just 4m — less than half the number of people that live in London — and a GDP on par with Vietnam.

I believe the way we organise groups of people is one of our most important challenges. From small project teams all the way up to whole societies of people, very little is achieved by individuals acting alone.

The world of elite sport is clearly an order of magnitude different from the teams that we work and play in every day. But if you go to a high enough level of abstraction, the principles of a well-functioning team should be the same.

What if we could break down what the All Blacks do and shamelessly copy it?

To understand what's going on under the hood you need to know about the All Black mantra…

Sweeping the sheds

This World Cup the All Blacks bring to England the most famous player in the world, Dan Carter, who also happens to be arguably the best fly-half in the sport’s history. Despite this, after each game you will find him and Richie McCaw, the highly decorated captain, literally sweeping up the changing room floor.

This exercise is linked to their broader objective of ‘leaving the jersey in a better place’ (see below). They have extended this to leaving everything in a better place, even the changing rooms. Humility is taught in all things.

Think about how different this is to other elite sporting examples. The best football teams in the world employ people to change the lightbulbs in their players houses. Floyd Mayweather hires someone to pick up his dirty underwear after gym sessions.

From a corporate perspective can you imagine the Execs cleaning up their coffee cups after a meeting? Ego hinders teams by making it harder to collaborate — the egos come to their own overly confident conclusions, at breakneck speed, setting up camp and laying siege to the group’s ideas.

It’s extra damaging when the ego is the most senior person in the room because these issues are amplified by organisational hierarchy, leading to minimal challenge and biased outcomes.

Popping egos is a treacherous endeavour, best left to managers and mentors. Just carry on cleaning up the coffee cups to remind yourself how to behave when you run the show.

Follow the spear head

In Maori, whanau means ‘extended family’. It’s symbolized by the spearhead.

Their spearhead is actually made of 3 smaller heads, and to be effective all of its force must move in one direction. Hence the All Blacks mantra ‘No Dickheads’, a term shamelessly stolen from the Sydney Swans.

The All Blacks select on character as well as talent, which means some of New Zealand’s best players never pull on the black jersey, or only get a single game — they are considered dickheads, their inclusion would be detrimental to the whanau.

In a non-sporting context this is a funny one. It seems intuitive to avoid dickheads in life, but I could swear I’ve been to offices and companies where dickhead status seems to be part of the selection criteria.

In truly adaptive teams the roles are going to be loosely defined and constantly evolve. This means teams will be able to quickly reshape and reallocate resource as required. You need teams of collaborators that are comfortable with that ambiguity and follow the spear head.

No team talk

Former head coach Graham Henry made pre-match time the team’s own, as part of his devolved leadership plan. It’s one example of how he built a team of leaders, not followers. The All Blacks run on individual integrity. This means total accountability, and by actions not words.

Devolved authority is a relevant subject for some of today’s hierarchical businesses struggling to keep up with the ever increasing pace of change. The old hierarchal systems were built to command and control huge companies in predictable and slow moving environments.

Today’s corporate scrums are not dissimilar to their rugby counterparts in terms of collaboration, albeit without the grunting. Agile scrums are small, empowered, self organising teams deployed by modern businesses that are highly adaptive and productive without the hierarchy and leadership in the traditional sense.

The aim is to produce an empowered network rather than a rigid controlling hierarchy. By deliberately distributing authority out to the edges of an organization, while also helping everyone to work in public, you get the benefits of both networks and empowerment.

Leave the jersey in a better place

The All Blacks have long had a saying: ‘leave the jersey in a better place’. Their task is to represent all those who have come before them — from George Nepia to Colin Meads, Michael Jones to Jonah Lomu, and all those who follow suit. An All Black is, by definition, a role model to schoolchildren across New Zealand.

Understanding this responsibility creates a compelling sense of higher purpose. It’s a good lesson for us all: if we play a bigger game, we play a more effective game.

Almost nothing in the corporate world is more important than thinking through how companies should be managed and for what ends. Unfortunately, we have made a mess of this. That mess has a name: it is “shareholder value maximisation”.

Operating companies in line with this belief not only leads to misbehavior but may also militate against their true social aim, which is to generate greater prosperity.

Shrewd businesses are developing a consciousness…attempting to build value through a set of values, rather than a soulless pursuit of improved
investor ratios.

Better people make better All Blacks — but they also make better doctors and lawyers, bankers and businessmen, fathers, brothers, and friends. Let’s all copy them