What Can Corporations Learn from Rugby's Six Nations?

Jonathan Berry, European Practice Director at Expressworks, a global change management consultancy, looks at how the Six Nations Rugby tournament can offer some lessons for the corporate world.

People in businesses can be roughly divided into two types – those who are very process driven and those who rely on their judgement. If you have a team made up of the first sort, decisions are going to be pretty easy because all you have to do is follow the process. In a team made up the second type of person decisions will be based on judgement and gut feel; but your colleagues have great judgement - they’ve had to develop it over the years, because, frankly, they’re a bit loose on the process front.

So who would you prefer to work with: the sterile but safe procedure follower or the under-pressure independent thinker? Before you decide, let’s think about Six Nations international rugby - my absolute favourite televised sport.

Rugby is basically a muddy combination of athletics and wrestling, but with a ball. Before it was played professionally, the rules were pretty informal, but once people started to make a living playing it, the rules had to be written down. What was an organically grown mess of expectations, norms and behaviours had to be codified into a long list of rules. Despite the extraordinary athleticism and courage of the players and the unbelievable intensity of the play, the rules have deeply affected the game in two ways their authors would not have anticipated.

First, so many rules had to be written that pretty much nobody understands them now. There are a few players and referees with an almost scholarly devotion to the laws of the scrum, but few officials or players - and almost certainly no members of the viewing public - really understand it. Its codification has become so complex that clarity around acceptable behaviour on the pitch has become lost.

Second, it damages players’ ability to make judgments, adapt to changing situations and use new information. The Scotland-England game a few weeks ago was played in a tempest and the wind made kicks unpredictable. This didn’t stop Heinz, England’s scrum-half, trying every time he could to kick the ball away - it didn’t work the first time, and it still wasn’t working by the fifth time, but he kept doing it. He was like a robot with the programme: if situation X then action Y. Repeat. Perhaps the freedom to adjust the process to meet the new information he had about the weather and success of previous attempts would have made for a better outcome.

For all its strangeness as a sport, I love international rugby and wouldn’t want it to be any different, but I do feel the question of over-codification poses questions for organisations. How do we draw the right balance between too much process and too little? How do we make the distinction between people whose judgement we trust and those we would prefer to just follow process? How can people grow and thrive without exercising their own judgement?

If I had to choose between joining a very process driven team or a team of independent thinkers, I’d go for the latter, despite the risks. For a start, it’s much more fulfilling but secondly, any job that can be codified into an automated process is going to be at risk of automation pretty soon. If your job can be codified, sooner or later somebody’s going to replace you with a robot.

Can you imagine what robot rugby would be like to watch? It’s not a situation that is likely to occur anytime soon, thankfully! But let’s make sure we celebrate the human elements that make the essential processes work.

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