Is Your Culture Directive Or Engaging?

Something that’s been on my mind a fair bit recently.  My eldest has been looking at ways of engaging user communities in the architectural design process, with a particular focus on active design.  Like many other industries, architecture is relatively directive in nature. The architect is, of course, seen as the expert and when consultation occurs, in the main, it is in the form of telling people what they intend to do and then answering questions, or taking some feedback and, possibly, amending the design.

Whether in a work context or a sporting one, it is difficult not to be directive, given that we are so conditioned to it from a young age, both in the classroom, from the industrial style education that most of us experience, and on the sports field.  When my boys where at primary school (many moons ago) they also played for a local football team. The coaches, all of whom were parents, acted as they perceived that coaches should telling, though mainly shouting multiple instructions at kids, both during practice and matches.  Many of you will be familiar with the group that follows the ball round the pitch like a swarm of bees despite this, though there’s usually one kid who sticks to his position, as told, out on the wing but hardly ever gets a kick of the ball!

Being directive only engages the egos of those doing the directing.  Yet it is endemic in most (though not all thankfully) working environments.  Things might be changing, but slowly.  It’s easy to see why when we are so conditioned to either direct or be directed.

My eldest son’s work (the aspiring architect) has involved looking at a number of methods outside of architecture, particularly action learning and agile development (in technology driven change).  Both involve high levels of engagement because they are collaborative and focus on the user.

It is worthwhile to reflect on the origins of action learning.  The term was initially coined by Reg Revans.  Reg was a former Olympic athlete (1928) and academic at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, humbled by the experience of witnessing a bunch of Nobel prize winning scientists struggle together for solutions to scientific problems in seminars, he adopted similar methods when he moved into industry.  Working on the premise that there were many ‘problems’ that we often sought expert help for but were better placed to resolve ourselves, he also found that this approach produced greater levels of engagement with his colleagues.  Of course this often makes the so-called expert uneasy.  It bears some similarity with non-directive coaching and it’s interesting that Gallwey made similar observations when he wrote ‘The Inner Game of Tennis’.

I mention this because some years ago I was asked to take over a failing change program at a major investment bank (a bastion of directive culture if ever there was one!).  I sold the enlightened person I worked for the concept of coaching the team to deliver.  While my approach was initially based on inner game coaching methods, it was some time later that I discovered the way it was executed (successfully I hasten to add) bore a striking resemblance to action learning.  The environment changed from one with fragmented teams and with a culture of blame, lack of ownership and chaos, to a cohesive delivery unit with a clear delivery process and strong sense of ownership.  The same principles that Gallwey had written about being effective in sport were equally so at work.

Adapt to win – Sir Alex Ferguson – Manchester United champions again


Well, as I’m on the train to Manchester, I thought I should write about the champions!  Manchester United have won their 20th top flight league title, 13 under Sir Alex Ferguson.  I’ve written about his approach in creating focus, listening to his team and the spirit he’s engendered at United, where there is a spirit of never knowing when they’re beaten.  However, for nearly 27 years he has managed the world’s greatest football club and has had to adapt to a game that has changed and to the challenges of fresh opponents.  It’s worth reading this on the BBC website:

Other teams have come and gone, buying success, as Blackburn (remember them?) did in the mid nineties and more recently Chelsea and Manchester City.  However, the focus at United has been on developing a set of principles that the team live by and maintaining the unity of the squad – anyone disrupting it tends not to last long.

Ferguson will be 72 this year – an example for those in the later years of their career, he’s continued to meet and address the challenges put in front of him.

Adapt At Work Like Federer


So the world around us is continually changing and we have to adapt to it.  Of course, it’s stating the obvious, however, given the impact on us, particularly at work, we need to be able to adapt effectively.

This is also true in tennis, both in the men’s and women’s games. Advances in technology together with efforts to mitigate these have changed the game beyond all recognition.  Just over a decade ago in men’s tennis there were consistent complaints that on faster courts the game was boring, with big servers dominating and rallies being short.  Of course, this also helped make the game more attractive on clay, where players still had to work the point out but points were at times shorter.

It’s illustrative to look at Federer’s career, as he emerged in an era of big serving and has remained at the top, setting records galore and never being out of the top four over the last 10 years.  He was first seeded in a grand slam (15 at Wimbledon) in 2001.  It was then that he beat Sampras – a tournament where those who played serve and volley tennis tended to dominate – the final that year was between Rafter and Ivanisavic, one of the finest serve and volley players against one of the biggest servers.  In 2001 Federer consistently came in to the net behind his first serve, as he did when he first won Wimbledon in 2003, playing a similar style as he started to dominate the men’s tour in 2004.   By 2006 he was barely coming to the net behind his serve, in the Wimbledon final, his first against Nadal, he came in behind his serve a mere five times (less than 5% of serve points).

So why the change?  Federer himself said:

“Looking back how I played Sampras in 2001, I was serve and volleying most of the time on first serves. So I definitely played more aggressive when was younger just because I didn’t believe in my ability from the baseline against the likes of Agassi, Ferrer, Nalbandian, you name it. So for me, that was a big, big step into the very top of the ranking, I would say, to actually improve my baseline game. Then I couldn’t believe how great I became from the baseline. Then obviously at times, because it was working so well, I just maintained that.”

Additionally, changes have occurred to both balls and playing surfaces, which have pushed Federer and others to make changes.  The ITF has sanctioned three different types of ball since 2002.  These are the standard ball, a harder ball, designed to play faster on slower surfaces and a slower ball, six percent larger than the standard ball.  All are designed to leave the racket at the same speed but the slower ball will lose speed in the air and again following the bounce.  The slower ball of course gives the receiver a much better chance of making the return.  I don’t think it’s coincidence that the game has been dominated in recent years by four players with exceptional returns of serve.

While there were rumours that Wimbledon had changed the type of grass in the nineties to slow down the game, it was definitely true that the surface became slower in the 2000’s.  The difference in pace off the court between Federer’s first win in 2003 and his loss to Nadal in 2008 was demonstrated by a graphic used by the BBC, where, using Federer as the example, it showed how much more time the receiver had on serves hit at the same speed.  For Nadal playing on grass became more like playing on a medium paced hard court.  This trend has coincided with the demise of serve volley tennis, other than by a few journeyman players (Llodra, Mirnyi) and the dominance in the game of supremely fit athletes with pinpoint accuracy from the baseline.

So how has Federer responded, as a player who initially emerged as an attacking player?Firstly, as mentioned above, he has developed greater confidence in his baseline game.  Adapting to the slower conditions at Wimbledon and elsewhere early in this period of dominance and unable to finish points as quickly, he improved his ability to create angles to enable him to work out the points better.

Over the last five or six years he has increasingly been challenged by what are now the other top four players (though Nadal is currently at five due to an extended absence through injury).  Nadal, Djokovic and Murray all play predominantly from the back of the court, are quick and are exceptional returners of serve.  They all tend to play deep, that is from well behind the baseline.  So with advancing years what has Federer done?  You might think he would play from further back to give himself more time.  However, this is contrary to his natural attacking instincts.  In fact on hard courts and grass he seems to have stepped in a little against his main rivals.  This is a higher risk strategy, in that when they hit the ball deep he needs to take the ball just after the bounce.  Indoors and in good weather conditions on a hard court this can work, if you have the exceptional hand-eye co-ordination that Federer has but in windy conditions, or on grass, where later in tournaments the baseline gets chewed up, there are more likely to be bad bounces leading to potential mishits.  It does have a major advantage, taking time away from his opponents and giving them the type of opponent that they will only ever face when they play him.  It also has the potential to shorten the points, which is again an advantage for an older player. Federer has made it work, 2012 saw him return to number one and win his 17th grand slam at Wimbledon.  He’s looked at how the environment he’s operating has changed and the players who are challenging him and worked out what he considers is the best way to adapt his style of play to the challenge.

We also need to think about how we need to adapt our skills to the environment we find ourselves in.

It ain’t over till the fat lady sings …


Events over this last weekend illustrate different mindsets in different sporting contexts with the FA Cup semi finals in English football and  the Masters in golf.

I am constantly fascinated by how people perform in different contexts.  I can’t profess to be as passionate about golf as some other sports, while I might not be in the camp that sees it as an activity that spoils a good walk, my clubs see the light of day once in a blue moon.

On Sunday Manchester City defeated Chelsea 2-1 in the FA Cup semi-final. Later the same day in Augusta Adam Scott became the first Australian winner of the Masters, defeating Angel Cabrera in the second play-off hole.

In the former, City were the stronger team for the first two thirds of the game and had a two goal lead to show for it.  Almost out of nothing Chelsea pulled a goal back and then spent the rest of the game pressing for an equalizer that would have taken the match into extra time.

The very nature of time bound games like football allowed City to play defensively for an extended period, sure in the knowledge that keeping Chelsea at bay would see them through to the final.

On the other hand, the final round of the Masters yesterday was an occasion of intrigue, as well as a very different mental game.  Golf is very different to football, while getting ahead you can, by playing effectively, defend a lead but a putt has to sunk at every hole, a mistake can lead to disaster.

Tied at 8 under, going in to the 18th both Adam Scott and Angel Cabrera birdied the hole.  They were not playing together but Scott was one of the penultimate pair, with the 43 year old Cabrera playing as one of the last pair.

With Scott holing a long putt, there was a loud roar but Cabrera stepped up to hit a close to perfect second shot, finishing about three feet from the hole in the 18th green.  At the point Scott walked off the 18th he was the winner, only to be pulled back by Cabrera holing his putt for a birdie.

So that was the end of the regulation 72 holes, both players had to get back out on the 18th for the first hole in a sudden death play-off.  Cabrera may now have been seen as the favourite, having won a play-off at the Masters four years ago.

There was much debate amongst the commentary team, as to whether a major championship should be decided by a sudden death play-off, rather than a three or four hole play-off.  Again, each involves a different mental mindset. An element of this was seen in the second play-off hole – the 10th.  Cabrera had come to grief on the 10th in the final round he had sent his drive wide and went for the safety of a one iron – though he managed to find similar distance and a good lie with his shot.

Both players played positively and it was decided when Cabrera left his putt almost on the lip at the 10th and Scott holed out from around 15 feet.  Both should be congratulated for their positivity, even at the last Cabrera was only a fraction from sinking his birdie putt but by such fractions are matches and reputations forged.

In other sports the game changes circumstantially as well, the penalty shoot out in football and the tie break in tennis,  Each have their own mental challenges, tennis can be particularly harsh, the fat lady really does have to sing, the last point has to be won, ask Federer – who twice has had match points against Djokovic in the semi finals of the US Open, only to lose.



Following on from last week, despite my comments, it was City who got the upper hand in the Manchester derby. However, despite the result on Monday, with Manchester United still 12 points clear in the Premier League with only seven games to play, it’s almost a certainty that City will lose the title they won for the first time in 44 years last season.

So much has been written about why already.  City manager, Roberto Mancini, has promised spectacular signings in the summer, having said that missed signings, most notably Robin Van Persie, who favoured United over City, cost them the title.  More insightful was a recent article by Jan Molby, who observed that while City have some great players, they are not as cohesive a team as United.  Mancini has not managed squad rotation as well as Ferguson, with United players generally slotting in.  United have a talented squad but it is their ability to function as a team and grind out results, even when not playing their best, that has proved a significant difference.

Functioning as a cohesive team, of course, only comes with plenty of work on the training pitch and the team’s management being able to communicate a vision of what they want from the players in that context.

So, if it’s not obvious why is this relevant to change projects?  There are a number of different areas to look at (not prioritised):


Blame is a consistent symptom of failure – people looking elsewhere to attribute falling short.  This focuses on one issue and usually distracts from addressing the real issues that have led to failure.  There are normally a series of contributory factors and determining where improvements can be made across the team.  In contrast British Cycling’s Dave Brailsford talks about marginal gains, where they are looking for small improvements across all factors that contribute to performance.

Team Cohesion

I worked with one programme director a few years ago, who’s view of how you get a high performing team was to pull all the best high performing individuals from across the organisation.  That may give you a bunch of very bright people but unless you can get them to work as a team they will fail.  Greece at Euro 2004 are a stark reminder of what a well organised team can achieve, winning the tournament as 80-1 outsiders at the start of the tournament.


This should really come before the last heading but without having a vision of how a team will perform and regularly communicating this to the team there is no uncertainty – they will fail.  Of all the change projects we have recovered over the years, one common characteristic is not the lack of vision but the failure to keep communicating it out to all those involved.

Organisational Denial

As blame distracts from true causes, in directive organisational cultures bad news rarely travels back to senior managers (of course in Premier League football it is all too visible).  How often do project managers rate projects green or amber when they should be amber or red. Without acknowledging problems they don’t get solved.

Lack of Long Term Accountability

Football management is a harsh profession.  Sir Alex Ferguson’s lengthy tenure at Manchester United is rare but security has come as a result of continued success.  Mancini joined Manchester City in December 2009 and there has been talk of replacement this season, given the demands for success from their wealthy Arab owners. In senior technology positions tenure can similarly be a tenuous thing, while the tenure of CIOs may average five years, in wholesale banking this has been significantly lower.  Much has been written about the culture and mentality of the team at Manchester United (whoever is playing), it is clearly difficult to make significant cultural changes without the lengthy tenure that Ferguson has had.  However, over the long term one can also build toxic cultures, so beware!;

Of course, there’s been much written about project failure and there are many other reasons, if you want to read further symptoms of failing projects that we’ve encountered see – I’d love to get more feedback on other symptoms/factors that people have observed.

Listen to your team…


In discussing Monday’s derby game between Manchester United and Manchester City on the radio, the pundits were asked what was so special about Sir Alex Ferguson that has proved the over the last two decades to be the most successful manager in British football.

One of the answers was that he listens to his players, retaining the ability to engage with them individually.  The point was also made that it was extremely rare for a United player to break ranks and speak out against either the club or Ferguson.  Another notable feature of Ferguson’s dealings with his players is that he never criticizes individual players in public.  Yes, when they play poorly he makes no bones about it and may say that they were poor in defence, or lacked cohesion but does not single out individual players.  He does, however, single out individuals for praise when they have played well.

It is part of the respect that he has for his players.  He has an extraordinary ability to manage a squad of highly paid, talented players, rotating them and  at the same time manage their egos, while getting them to perform at their peak.

This is in stark contrast with some of the coaches and managers I’ve witnessed over the years in child and youth sports, where they are constantly directing their players, telling them what to do.  They observe others who are directive, as do those in management positions at work and follow a model that may give the manager a feeling of control but is more of an inhibitor to creativity and high performance than an enabler.

Ferguson, on the other hand, often talks about allowing his team to go out and play, to be creative.  If we want high performing teams we need to give them autonomy, allow them to play and praise our players when they achieve.