“Never change a winning team!”
There aren’t many proverbs in sports that are as well known as this one, and many people do agree to it. Obviously it has a certain appeal because it is so simple: When you win, everything is going into the right direction, so why change that direction?
The problem is that it does not guarantee you will be able continue the winning streak. So whenever I hear it I wonder what the reasoning would be in case you start to lose. Always change a losing team?
Why teams win or why they lose is a rather complex thing: Momentum definitely plays a role in it, which is one reason why not changing anything when you’re winning often works. But it’s not the only point. In many cases it may be more about flexibility and the ability to adapt to certain situations or opponents.
I was caught up in a discussion a few days ago in which managers from different successful companies complained that now that the economy has picked up speed again, no one was really considering the new approaches they suggest. Getting the buy-in for innovation seems to be very tough when a company is winning, as anyone is afraid that changing would lead to losing momentum or losing “the magic”. Also, most people can’t see why they should invest resources and energy when everything seems to be on track.
It seems tough to improve things when there is no pressure coming from any kind of suffering. When a company already started to lose market share, when margins already began to decrease, it is easier to find people that would support the view that there needs to be some sort of change. The bad news is: By then it’s often too late.
Let’s go back to the world of sports: How often did we see teams that jumped from a winning streak straight to a losing streak? Or how often did we see coaches stick with one tactical direction without noticing the development went on and better ways to play have been identified (more on changes of tactical directions in my post on the development of soccer tactics here) ? And how often did we see teams that performed well for one or a couple of seasons completely fall apart just one year later even though they did not exchange any players on their roster?
Or is it because of that?
Is it because no new stimuli have been given, because everybody was in a state of comfort, did not go the extra mile anymore and got inattentive to what’s happening around themselves?
Intel’s former CEO and chairman Andy Grove calls the point when you start losing the “Inflection Point” (he wasn’t using the sports analogy, though). According to him, an “inflection point occurs when the old strategic picture dissolves and gives way to the new”.
The problem now is that these inflection points “can be deadly when unattended to”, and that those companies that don’t take care will see their performance and success decline and “rarely recover their previous greatness”.
This is one of the biggest challenges I see in innovation management (don’t like the wording of “innovation management”, but I guess you get the point): How to create that pressure to change, that fear of suffering, that will to improve in already fairly well performing organizations? How to create the sense of danger just when you seem to be unbeatable? How to create a constant paranoia?
This word may sound pretty drastic to you in this context, yet it is exactly the wording Grove uses. He even calls the book he wrote on the subject: “Only the paranoid survive”.
Trying to create that paranoia by challenging constantly like Andy Grove does it is certainly one possible approach. Being attentive and ready to change, motivated by fear of what may be out there. I personally believe there’s also another approach, one that goes into the completely opposite direction. It is based on the assumption that basically everybody has the will to improve. Improve things in general, improve oneself, improve performance. If that’s true (I’m sure it is), then it’s just fear that keeps us from following that path with more dedication. Fear of losing what we have today. Fear of failure.
I believe that one of the reasons why everybody agrees to “never change a winning team” is that nobody is ready to risk being blamed for the loss in case the changed team fails to win. The point is; There’s no guarantee it would have won without the change either. This is another major point that can help to grow innovation orientation: Take away the fear of failure.
It’s a tough one which is why it’s not tried very often. The point is that leadership by example would probably be the most effective way of doing it (don’t get me wrong, that would not mean making mistakes on purpose. That’s not necessary as we all have already made enough mistake to talk about). But that means showing one’s own weaknesses and default – something only very few are prepared to do in the alpha-macho type organizations many of us work in today. That’s a catch 22.
Only very strong leaders are able to break it. For all others, one idea to bridge the gap would be to institutionalize the discussion. Maybe have meetings where a couple of people speak about their failures and discuss what they’ve learned. It’s easier in a group. Or create an award for the best creative project that hasn’t made it to implementation (i.e. failed).
The golden path would then be to bring the approaches together. Create the paranoia Grove speaks about and make the fear of making mistakes disappear. That may sound contradictory, and maybe it is. It’s a thin line, it’s a change management challenge, it’s a leadership challenge.
A leadership challenge because there is one glue that can bond these two approaches together: Trust.
In an environment where people feel trusted, they feel empowered to take on the challenges from external sources. At the same time they are not afraid to take risks and try to walk onto new paths as trust also helps to unlock the will to improve.
Back to our analogy: No matter if this helps to win the next match or not, I truly believe that this approach makes more independent from winning streaks, yet leads to many victories on the long run.
Adapt to changes proactively. Always try to improve. Always trust the team. In brief: Change a winning team.