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From the All Blacks XV to Camp Bastion medics, what makes a breakthrough team?

December 2, 2013

The current All Blacks might be the best rugby team in history, having just completed a 100% record of 14 wins from 14 Tests in 2013. This encompasses all the things New Zealand rugby holds dearest: work hard, play to the whistle, believe in yourself, believe in your team-mates and, as current captain Richie McCaw says, never, ever, give up.

They clinched their final victory, 24-22, against Ireland in dramatic fashion last weekend. The hosts appeared on course to win their first Test over New Zealand in 109 years up until the final movement of the game, having taken the lead after four minutes and leading 19-0 after 18 minutes. The Irish had stormed into a 22-7 half-time lead but they failed to score a point in the second-half.

At 22-17, a missed penalty by Jonathan Sexton four minutes from time ultimately cost them their first ever victory over the All Blacks. At 80 minutes, full-time, they were still in the lead as they played keep-ball in the New Zealand half. Time was up, and they were keeping the ball in short phases. All they had to do was get the ball back from a tackle and kick it out into history.

But no. The referee penalised prop Jack McGrath for going off his feet and coming in from the side at a ruck. The penalty was 15m inside the New Zealand half. The All Blacks, as you would expect, showed their composure, tapped and moved up the field in progressive phases – 22 in total – until 92 seconds after the final hooter, far out on the left Dane Coles popped a pass to Ryan Crotty who had an overlap and the bearded centre scored. 22-all.

The try was analysed for nearly five minutes by the third match official, who eventually ruled Coles’ pass wasn’t forward. Aaron Cruden lined up the conversion, the Irish charged and Cruden missed. The referee judged that the Irish charge was early, which clearly it was, and so he ordered another kick without an Irish charge. This time, on 83 minutes and some seconds, number 10 Cruden nailed his second chance, and the All Blacks had won 24-22. A dramatic four minutes. It was the first time the All Blacks led in a breathtaking Test. Check out some the highlights:

So where do the 2013 All Blacks team rank in history, to be considered as contenders as the best team of all time? There have been two particular earlier tours that set the standard. The 1905 All Blacks, nicknamed The Originals, swept through Britain and Europe displaying a style of rugby that took the other nations by surprise, playing 35 matches and losing only one, 0-3 to Wales. New Zealand’s long history of innovation in the game really began here, as the team showed a combination of discipline, tactics, ferocity and grace. The ball was kept in hand, and passed for the fastest to run with, rather than kicked for them to chase. Shots at goal were declined in favour of spinning it wide or crashing it forward. Fear of the black jersey was born.

The 1924 team was dubbed The Invincibles, because they won every game.They boasted a strong forward pack which included the physical Brownlie brothers, a mastermind centre in Mark Nicholls, arguably their greatest-ever midfielder in Bert Cooke and the incomparable George Nepia at full-back. Nepia, aged 19 and who played in all 30 matches, is still regarded as the greatest player not just of that era but of all time, and set a standard for future generations of players to aspire to.

Over the years, the All Blacks have become the most feared opponent in the sport. Fierce rivalries exist between all the rugby powers, but the men wearing the black jerseys with the silver fern and delivering the challenge of the Haka have a psychological edge on the opposition whenever they step onto the field. Men like George Nepia, Colin Meads, Waka Nathan, Wilson Whineray, Graham Mourie, Andrew Mehrtens and Tana Umaga in the All Blacks hall of fame are outstanding individuals from outstanding teams – an unusual feature of many All Blacks teams is they can often have five or six truly stand out individuals, but its all about the team first.

Whilst many claim great teams operate to the maxim there is no I in team, there is simply no doubt that successful teams are comprised of high performing individuals. If you crush the individual character and spirit of those who form your team, how can your team operate at its best? It cannot. The strongest teams don’t weed out or neutralise individual tendencies, they capitalise on them. The goal is to harness individual strengths for the greater good of the team. This is best accomplished by leveraging individual talents, not stifling them.

Simply, no team can maximise their potential by ignoring or minimising the strengths of individual members. While smart leaders seek to align expectations and to create unity in vision, they understand this has nothing to do with demanding conformity in thought, or perspective. The key to maximizing the individual talents within a team is to focus on the shared vision rather than individual differences. For me, there are three primary considerations to build a high-performance team:

Alignment around a shared vision, shared values and common purpose One of the catalysts for effective team behaviour is trust. Trust between team members comes from believing in the same things. Teams with a strong sense of shared values use their behaviour to set standards. This seems obvious but many teams do not have it.

You want all team members moving in the same direction toward a shared vision, whereby individual and team goals are related to the purpose of the team. Then, team members clearly understand their roles and responsibilities and there is a strong and clear connection between all activities and the purpose of the team.

The common purpose should also be more than a set of numbers, it should connect to the organisation’s vision and the strategy for delivering it, having a common purpose includes the way they are going to win, especially if you are looking for repeatable success.

Make time for team members to appreciate one another’s skills Interpersonal understanding is critical to trust, the team must be aware of each member’s skills and personalities.  Once a team is established, taking time at each meeting for members to share personal reflections helps fortify the team’s understanding of each individual and how together they all contribute to a common goal. People on teams where people know one another better as people, are more collaborative and more efficient.

Once the individual senses their freedom within the team environment, there is a high and sustained level of energy, enthusiasm and confidence about their work and the way team members work together. Team members feel inspired and able to perform at levels never before imagined and in their ability to overcome obstacles. There is an aura of togetherness and focus that sustains growth of new capabilities and openness to change.

Mutual and individual accountability People like to know what is expected of them. In teams it’s critical to get the balance right between what the person is expected to do on their own and what that are expected to do for each other, and the team. Individual and team accountabilities must be aligned otherwise the team will pull against itself. Accountability, or ownership, needs to be one of any team’s shared values.

Teams need clear and constant feedback to know how they are doing in order to stay motivated and to correct performance inefficiencies. Ideally, a system should be in place so that team members receive ongoing feedback.

If you want a winning team, you need to make sure that each team member is responsible and committed to contributing to the team and are accountable for their performance and behaviour. No amount of good teamwork can be achieved if you don’t have individuals who are responsible, committed and accountable in your team.

However, the cliché remains. There is no I in Team, but Cambridge University’s Judge Business School Professor Mark de Rond’s research refutes the view that a cohesive team of players is more likely to win than a collection of outstanding individuals. There is an I in Team, combines social and psychological research with stories from world-class sports teams, as well as looking at other groups such as orchestras, and the corollary is definitely worth a read.

De Rond recently completed a six-week stint at the military hospital in Camp Bastion, the UK base in Helmand, Afghanistan and produced a remarkable study into the ways emergency medical teams cope with the high pressure environment which brings out their individual and collective qualities in the team.

De Rond says, At Bastion, you see the best teamwork you will ever see. But these are driven people, and some of the qualities that make them brilliant also make them difficult. The surgeons will occasionally compete for interesting work, and interfere with the work of others when they have none of their own.

Unable to cope with boredom, they will hope for new work to come in but then feel guilty about this – but the acceptance of such paradoxes is vital to the psychological safety of the surgical teams, allowing them to perform more effectively.

The need for best medical practices had led to a relaxation of the rules of hierarchy in the team de Rond has noted. The ‘de-ranking’ meant that people were able to speak more openly, admit mistakes, offer suggestions, or even criticism without worrying about that going on their records, upsetting the chain of command. It worked. The teamwork improved. The medical centre at Camp Bastion, the size of the town of Reading, has grown in six years from a row of tents to the most advanced of its kind, with treatments pioneered there for trauma adopted in civilian hospitals worldwide. De Rond’s findings are worth viewing:

As the All Blacks, and the de Rond research remind us, effective teamwork is critical to an organisation’s success. We are better together than we are apart. The three key attributes of high performing teams identified earlier – superior levels of alignment, respect for the individual and mutual accountability – create greater levels of participation, cooperation, and collaboration – because their members trust one another, share a strong sense of group identity, and have confidence in their effectiveness as a team.

A final words to the All Blacks, where a whiteboard message in the changing room at Twickenham ahead of the England game declared: We are the most dominant team in the history of the world. We are playing England – this is about history, about human nature. We need to reach new levels mentally as a group. If only we could capture this, and replicate Richie McCaw’s spirit of the All Blacks in our own organisations: When you score a try for the All Blacks, you do it for the team, because the silver fern on the front of the shirt, and the shirt itself, are more important than the name on the scoreboard.

Whilst Michael Jordan said there is no i in team but there is in win, no one can whistle a symphony alone, it takes a whole orchestra to play it. Individual commitment to a group effort is what makes a team work, an organisation work, a society work, a civilisation work. Many of us are more capable than some of us, but none of us is as capable as all of us.



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