Business is more similar to rugby than you might think. No, I’m not referring to scrums, shared showers and alcohol abuse! In this series of posts I’ll use lessons from 20 years of playing and coaching rugby to make you a better CTO.
Well functioning teams are continually making decisions about what is most important, where to position team members, and weighing different risks and options.
In rugby we see this at hyperspeed; within an 80 minute game the players are collectively making thousands of decisions about how to position themselves on the pitch, adjusting their running lines, continually evaluating attacking and defensive options.
Taking in information
The modern rugby team empowers the players to make decisions on the pitch, based on the information at their disposal. The player closest to the action is often best placed to make a decision, rather than the coaching staff. This is so-called “Heads-up rugby”, it prioritizes players keeping their physical and metaphorical “heads up”, to take in all the information at their disposal and react quickly — rather than just running predictable pre-planned attacking or defensive lines (plays).
“Good decisions come from a clear focus on the correct cues. Cues are signals to the brain to help choose the next action.“
Observe > Decide > Act
As CTO you therefore must cultivate people who can collectively:
- See threats and opportunities
- Make a decision on a plan of action
- Execute a plan of action
Your team is as effective as your weakest link in (1) ⮕ (2) ⮕ (3). It’s not realistic to imagine everyone will be excellent in all three areas. Teammates will also need excellent communication skills to disseminate the information on the threats/opportunities, the decisions, the plans to execute, and their status.
Note, the military refers to this as the OODA loop, but the basic principle is the same.
Everyone on the team needs to be empowered to continually identify threats and opportunities. For a complex software product this could be: competitive pressures, technical debt, refactoring opportunities, security risks, advantages from new frameworks, languages, standards, protocols, platforms, regulatory risks, pricing, privacy, moral, legal and reputational hazard… the list is almost unending!
You need to create an open and inclusive culture where the people closest to the action feel confident that they can identify opportunities and threats to the broader team, and they will be heard, and taken into account.
The biggest challenge with threat and opportunity identification is that the team has to do it AT SPEED. We don’t need armchair pundits that have the benefit of video analysis to identify threats and opportunities — the team needs engaged team members that can do it in the heat of the moment, sometimes when they are under stress and tired.
Rugby players are coached to continually identify threats and opportunities at different “zoom levels”, i.e. to look at the players within a 10 meter radius, 20 meter radius, and at the whole pitch. Often, as we zoom out, we see different information emerge. Within 10 meters we may have 2 players vs 3 players (numeric supremacy), within 20 meters there may be an opportunity to have a big forward player confront a small back player (size mismatch), and at the level of the whole pitch we may see a great kicking option.
In business we can train a similar discipline — observing threats and opportunities across different timescales, product lines, and geographies, for example.
Rugby coaches use lots of drills to help teach players to quickly take in complex information on the pitch — so these skills can be honed and improved.
Assuming we’ve observed some threats and opportunities, we now need to quickly make a decision on a course of action. As was stated previously, most teams rely on a relatively small number of key decision makers. They are fed information from the whole team and make decisions specific to their role or zone of influence.
In a rugby team this is often (2) Hooker (manages the forwards), (9) Scrum-half, manages the link between the forwards and the backs, (10) the Fly-half, manages the backs, and (15) Fullback, manages the wingers and deep defense. This is often referred to as the “spine” of the team. Decisions flow through the spine, with the team dynamically adjusting to the decisions made by the various decision makers in real-time. Other players are however encouraged to also make decisions and some teams use a different system, based on the personalities and skills in the team.
Just because the team has made a decision, it doesn’t mean that the rejected options are no longer available. Often, a good decision is the one that keeps as many options as possible available for as long as possible. Having a Plan B, C and D is a good risk management strategy in defense, and a great way to confuse the opposition in attack.
The decision makers also need to be intimately aware of the capabilities and skills of the team. A good decision for Team A might be a terrible decision for Team B, if Team B doesn’t have the skills or people to execute the plan of action. A team needs to play to its strengths. Before we make some decisions (continuous deployment, for example) the team may need to work on a supporting set of skills.
Once a decision has been made the team must enter a phase of action. The team cannot be trapped in “analysis-paralysis”, continually evaluating plans of action. The decision makers MUST make a call and the team must TRUST the call and must execute a rational plan based on the decision. Often a bad decision is better than no decision. A bad decision will at least allow the team to collect new information.
“We back a bad call. We trust each other and recover.”
Things will inevitably go wrong. Teams make bad decisions, or they make a good decision but then fail to execute it. Sometimes they just don’t see a threat or opportunity coming at them. In these circumstances TRUST becomes a huge factor. A well functioning team will quickly recover from a bad decision, while a poor team will descend into navel-gazing recriminations, exacerbating their own problems, rather than adjusting to a new reality.
Training and repetition
Continually making decisions on the fly is stressful, error-prone and hard work. Teams therefore DO benefit from some pre-canned responses to situations: “In situation X we generally do Y”. These recipes (while predictable) can be important to build trust and confidence within the team. In business they could appear as checklists, business processes, scripts, standard forms or other structured workflows. You have to be careful that they don’t become a Cargo Cult however, or a crutch, or worse, a mechanism to suppress individual agency and decision making. A healthy team regularly questions why they follow pre-canned responses.
Rugby teams work on “set pieces” for situations like penalties, scrums, line-outs — these are natural breaks in play where on-the-fly decision making is not necessary and the priority is organizing the entire team. Having a checklist for employee onboarding, or for upgrading a frequently changing 3rd-party software library is a good example of something that might reduce stress and lead to better outcomes.
Athlete training in general also promotes “muscle-memory”, through repetition — effectively moving decision making from the conscious brain to the unconscious brain, where it is faster, less stressful and facilitates multi-tasking.
It is also important to differentiate tactics from strategy, but that is a big enough subject to deserve its own treatment!
- Who in your team is good at identifying threats and opportunities?
- Who in your team is good at executing a plan?
- Where is the decision making “spine” of your team?
- How can you use different zoom levels to make better decisions?
- How could you encourage people to identify threats and opportunities?
- Where would you benefit from using pre-canned business processes or decisions?
- How does your team react to good and bad decisions?