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What can the rugby world cup teach businesses about collaboration?

Dr Austin Swain

The rugby world cup offers businesses an opportunity to learn how to create collaborative and cohesive teams, at speed and in the face of existing rivalries. More so, it shows how doing this is essential to overall success. Contributor Dr Austin Swain, Director – Lane4.

As A former psychologist to the England Rugby Union team, here I explore the lessons for businesses that can be taken from the world cup. This year, an article written by Ugo Monye ahead of England’s game with Argentina stood out to me. In particular, I was struck by his observation that: “The only thing that ever gets in the way of the English game is politics. I get why, but wouldn’t it be amazing if there was collaboration for the greater good of the national side?”

For me, this comment perfectly highlights the importance of collaboration to the success of any team – whether in sport or business. And, given the many parallels in team dynamics between sport and modern organisations, there are a number of lessons the rugby world cup can teach businesses about collaboration. 

A clear vision isn’t enough to align a team
Having a shared vision that each team member can buy into is essential in creating effective collaboration in any team; if each member or player has their own agenda and goals, success will remain elusive. Leaders play a crucial role in establishing this sense of common purpose, and Warren Gatland and his squad did this effectively for Wales at the rugby world cup. Ahead of their hotly anticipated game against Australia, for example, the country’s defence coach Shaun Edwards said to the players that  “…this is a game they will remember for the rest of their lives and we want to be successful in it.”

Of course, playing for your country – and especially one with as strong a national identity as Wales – is a huge motivator in itself, and one that doesn’t necessarily occur naturally in the workplace. So, in a business context, it’s even more important that leaders actively create a compelling vision and purpose for their organisation and teams. For us at Lane4, for instance, the vision that drives everything we do is to improve people’s working lives.

But just having a mission alone isn’t enough.  In order for the mission to drive collaboration and ultimately performance, each member of a team or organisation has to feel motivated by and engaged with it. One important aspect of getting this buy-in is for the leadership team to effectively articulate and champion the vision, and get people across the organisation to feed into it. Edwards’ quote above is a great example of where a team’s mission is effectively being communicated.  

Successful teams need strong task and social cohesion
High performing teams that demonstrate great collaboration tend to be high relating teams, (where members connect on a professional and personal level). Collaboration grows when there is a strong mix of both task cohesion and social cohesion. The former refers to the way in which members work towards a common goal like winning a game; and the latter is the degree to which the team like each other and interact accordingly. 

There are numerous ways in which this cohesion can be developed, including through fostering respect and spending time together. But an important aspect is what I like to call “zero tolerance of precious professional boundaries”. Or in the words of New Zealand’s All Black’s: “no d***heads allowed”. This relates to the fact that when people get too precious about their professional, hierarchical status, things can become quite cliquey – which obviously hinders collaboration. 

In a rugby context, having this zero-tolerance attitude means ensuring that players don’t get special treatment because they’ve, for example, been playing for the national team for years, or come from a high-performing club. Whereas for businesses, one example could be making sure that everyone works in the same spaces as opposed to having an ‘exec alley’ where leaders are inaccessible behind their PAs.  

It’s important to stress that creating social cohesion doesn’t mean that all team members have to end up best friends. But it does mean nurturing an environment where everyone feels respected and able to express their views; where everyone understands each other’s roles and where their value lies. Having the ability to step into someone else’s shoes and understand what they are trying to say shores up collaboration and productivity.  

It’s worth pointing out that, in many ways, both forms of cohesion are slightly easier to create for national rugby teams during a world cup build up. In the world cup itself there are no club distractions, and they will have been training together for months by that point. Of course, working and living together for months is not something that often happens in a business context, especially if people are part of multiple teams. So, it’s important that businesses try to actively create the opportunity for people to get to know each other by investing in team off-sites – something that can often fall by the wayside when an organisation has an urgency addiction or pressing business need. 

Effectively using team charters boosts performance 
One of the first things many international rugby teams do when they come together before the world cup is create a team charter establishing their modus operandi. This charter will be unique to that group of individuals, distinct from any club team charters or codes of conduct. When done well, it improves collaboration by enabling team members to align their shared goals and decide how they are going to achieve them.

Wales may or may not have a team charter, but you can tell from interviews and through the structure of their play that, not only do they have a clearly articulated game plan on the pitch, they also share clarity on how they want to be perceived as Wales players off it. A team charter will be ineffective if they have not been co-created by the team members themselves, as they won’t feel invested in them. 

In business, team charters sometimes get a bad reputation. However, when they are created and deployed well they can be extremely effective. Team charter best practice advice:  Create team charters for every individual team, and don’t borrow another team’s charter. All team members should be involved in its creation to ensure they are engaged with it. The charter could outline things like the team’s goal and how they will achieve it, how they want to be perceived, what motivates each member and how they will treat each other

Agree how the team charter should be used, and call each other out when it’s not being honoured

A team charter needs to be lived, and leaders especially have to be impeccable role models of the points agreed. For leadership teams in particular, it can also be a good idea to create both home and away charters. The former relates to when the individual members come together, and the latter to what happens when they disperse to their own areas of the business

Ugo Monye’s comment about the importance of collaboration over politics rings true for business in exactly the same way as it does for rugby. But one thing that’s for sure is that it will never be achieved in the name of the greater good alone. In order for any team to effectively work together and ‘take home the trophy’, they have to know how to bring out the best in each other and rally behind their team’s vision. 

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