Praise the Lord! We are a musical nation.

December 2, 2011

In business we spend a considerable amount of time discussing where we are going. Yet when we introduced to other homo narrans, we seem to spend a lot of time navigating toward an understanding of the each other through references to aspects of personal history. We display metaphorically our geographic, social, intellectual, even spiritual roots. As Snowden points out, we re-establish extended familial bonds at births, deaths and marriages through the re-telling share (and sometimes embellished) family sagas. It seems to give us context about the range of conversations we can going forward; they can launching points for oral adventures, or traffic lights preventing collisions. It can of course lead to initial mis-conceptions, but I find course correction easily obtained. For example; I am Welsh, but I don’t sing. Or rather I do sing, but lustfully, not tunefully. My race does not have a genetic disposition for singing, but my culture does engage itself and identify itself through this medium—and there can’t be too many nations whose pop musicians complete their concert by leading the audience in hymn singing.

On Saturday, some 75,000 primarily non-chapel goers will once again don their Saturday-best sportswear, and give beery thanks to the Lord as the Welsh rugby team takes the field against Australia in Cardiff. The emotion of the occasion will heightened as Shane Williams, one of the treasured players of Welsh rugby, plays his final international game.

Shane “Dancing Williams” typifies the emerging approach to strategy generation. Please bear with me on the analogy.

Shane Williams is an outlier. At 5’7” he is at low end (way low end) of height distribution for international professional rugby players. His position of winger calls for acceleration and speed, sufficient to outpace other players over the 100 metres of a rugby pitch in order to score a try. Williams may be fast, but he is not the fastest. From published data he is not even in the top 20% of international players over this distance, yet, he has been one of the most successful and admired players over the past decade. In 2008 he was awarded the International Rugby Board Player of the year, an award that recognises the player who has had the greatest international impact during the previous year. He is the third highest try scorer in international rugby.

So how has been so successful? When interviewed recently he summed it as follows:

– Be honest with yourself, and work with what you have . Williams has been told since he was 13 years old that he was too small. But he also knew that no number of hill sprints, push-up’s or bench presses would have impacted his height, and the cost and implications of artificial enhancement were too high. But he did know that he could out sprint any over 20 metres, and that he could turn a tighter circle than anyone else. He then focussed on pushing this sprinting differential to 25 m, and to building his hip strength so that he could use his hip spin speed to break tackles as well as avoid.

– Focus on impact not output. Height and speed can be measured easily, but they do not necessarily translate to impactful results. At 13 years old Shane Williams played on a team with 16 year olds scored more tries than anyone else despite being told he was too small—again.

My take-aways from this are:

  1. Don’t confuse correlation with causation. Rugby players are getting bigger – as is the general population – and therefore some of the good players are bigger than before. But this is correlation, not causation, and can lead to inappropriate conclusions and measures
  2. Focus on impact not output.. Fast, big players have enjoyed international careers but haven fallen far short of the Williams’ performance and impact on results. Simple measures are not always relevant. Rugby, like business, is a complex game and success is acquired via agents who are able to shape the result and not merely complete a transaction.
  3. Know where and who you are and go forward from there. Don’t believe or wish you had a different starting point.


Diolch yn fawr

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

Cognitive Edge Ltd. & Cognitive Edge Pte. trading as The Cynefin Company and The Cynefin Centre.


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