Four Lessons on Transformation from the World’s Most Successful Sports Team

Rugby player holding rugby ball

The only constant is change. A common turn of phrase we all unconsciously subscribe to and, for the most part, take for granted in both our personal and professional lives. We wake up to a new world almost every day—political chaos, mass tragedies, natural disasters, market volatility, and myriad other “news of the day” headlines that we have become almost numb to. In some respects, change has become marginalized because it is so pervasive, a commodity-like substance that most of us just take for granted. 

In a business or organizational context, the danger of this ambivalence is that “change” itself is often not identified as something that needs to be managed when implementing transformative programs. To be lasting and truly effective, however, the process of change is something that can and should be managed apart from functional and other operational workstreams.

I came across an interesting read recently that I thought would be a good sports story but actually turned out to be a series of narratives about leadership and management. The book is “Legacy” by James Kerr, and it chronicles the storied national rugby team of New Zealand, the All Blacks—arguably one of the most dominant and successful sports organizations of all time. I admit my sports knowledge is rather narrowly focused on the major sports in America, but I became intrigued when I heard this book had attained a bit of a cult following in sports and leadership circles. 

Much of the book is a discussion about change and how to effectively implement truly transformative initiatives. In this case, the transformation was a complete overhaul of the operating model and culture of the All Blacks organization in order to shake off a run of poor performance, losing, and general disillusionment among the players. The concepts discussed, however, can be applied generally to any initiative that requires its participants to embrace significant change. The author speaks of four components that are critical to long-term success in organizational change programs:

  • Building the case—For those that have identified the need for change (most often senior management), the reasons and expected benefits may be obvious. For those that will be tasked with implementing and carrying out the change (most often line managers and staff), the reasons and benefits may not be so clear. It is imperative that leadership create awareness at all levels of the organization as to the reasons why change is occurring and what the expected benefits will be for the organization and, by extension, its people.
  • Painting a compelling vision of the future—To get people to go somewhere, you need a destination that is enticing. When the future state is ambiguous or murky it’s difficult for an organization to embrace a new direction. Who wants to undertake a painful journey not knowing whether the destination will be worthwhile? Organizations should provide clear evidence of their vision for the future and how that vision translates to a better experience for the firm’s stakeholders.
  • Create sustained capability for change—Organizations that are most successful in implementing change are those that build a culture that promotes and embraces transformative ideas. They make change management a core competency for their managers and executives and incentivize individuals and teams to identify, execute and manage transformative programs (large and small). 
  • A credible plan to execute—All good plans need a clear roadmap that outlines the detailed steps, milestones, dependencies and resourcing necessary to successfully execute. While specific plans may be carved out for individual teams or objectives, they should always align towards a comprehensive vision and timeline for the program. Most importantly, these plans should be crafted by leveraging input from key stakeholders in order to best secure their buy-in from the outset.

This approach proved successful for the All Blacks as they soon resumed their status as one of the premier sports organizations in the world. Food for thought for executives and program managers as they consider how best to prepare their organizations and clients for change.