Posted on Thursday 15 November 2012 by Ulster Business

All Blacks in Business

In high performance sport there are no hiding places once you and your team's performance are showcased on television. You either win or lose. Everybody wants to win and the constant pursuit of sustained success drives change towards achieving this.

Just ask Graham Henry, the 2011 Rugby World Cup winning coach of the New Zealand All Blacks, which broke a 24 year World Cup 'drought' for the country with the best record in international rugby.

Ask Dave Brailsford, the Performance Director of the GB Cycling Team, who focused on 'the aggregation of marginal gains' over an eight year period to achieve outstanding success at this year's London Olympics.

In sport it's all about making progressive change or getting overtaken and left behind. What are the parallel lessons in this for business in Northern Ireland?

In over a hundred years of rugby, the All Blacks hold an 84% winning record and are consistently the No. 1 ranked team in the world. But winning the sport's pinnacle event, the Rugby World Cup, eluded the All Blacks for 24 years after success at the inaugural event in 1987. What made this four-yearly pain even worse for New Zealand is that, for a country of four million people in a remote part of the world, All Black success is a big part of their identity, culture and pride. The All Blacks are New Zealand's only true global brand these days. Striving for world cup success was paramount. However, the All Blacks hit their lowest point ever in 2007, when they were knocked out by France in the early stages.

The review of the world cup failure in 2007 clearly showed that New Zealand Rugby as a whole, had to improve across three critical areas of performance to win pinnacle events.

These were the attributes of tactical, mental and leadership ability. In a country renowned for playing expansive rugby – like Brazil do in football – it had to make cultural and systemic changes to be able to adapt their game plan when needed and play like Germany's football team under white hot pressure.

I was High Performance Player Development Manager for the New Zealand Rugby Union from 2007 to 2011, with responsibility for systems and structures to develop future All Blacks. As part of the High Performance Team, developing and implementing the strategy to achieve these three major changes was the focal point.

An innovative, integrated performance management system that delivered the necessary changes on time had to be developed and prove highly effective by 2011. The competitions that the All Blacks played in and future All Blacks developed in, involved 26 different teams. 14 Provincial, five Super Rugby and seven National teams made up the system and traditionally they had largely operated in silos. The new performance management system was built from the ground up with the provinces, Super Rugby and National teams. It was benchmarked against and drew ideas from other sports, other sectors including the military and business, and other countries.

In a small country with a powerful global brand, integration within and between the 26 organisations was critical for the new and innovative system to work to create the cultural and systemic changes in the three identified areas. The system 'glued' everybody together around making these changes.

The world cup 'drought' was finally broken in 2011 with the new performance management system playing an integral part.

Interestingly though, the system for reviewing player performance in New Zealand Rugby prior to 2007, was a paper-based traditional human resources (HR) type of system which was viewed negatively as a 'tick box' exercise and therefore was ineffectual. It was the first thing that had to change.

So what are the parallel lessons from New Zealand Rugby and the All Blacks, for business in Northern Ireland?

It can be argued that business and the economy are at their lowest points since the Great Depression of the 1930's, hence the paramount need for change. Northern Ireland is a small country like New Zealand but has a high level of global awareness due to its history. How can this be changed into a global business and economic brand that becomes renowned for certain characteristics? How can it's small size be turned into a competitive advantage so that Northern Ireland business achieves a global reputation for being innovative, by integrating effectively within and between companies and proactively delivering to the markets quickly?

This too, would need significant cultural and systemic changes in leadership and management, including new ways of looking at performance management in the work place to achieve these outcomes.

Recent research from the Ulster Business School conducted across eighteen Northern Ireland companies and organisations, clearly indicates that the vast majority of HR professionals surveyed consider their performance management system to be less than fully effective in achieving its purpose. Line managers see their performance management system as a "paper-based, tick box chore" which has to be completed but brings few tangible benefits for their teams.

KPMG also recently reported that 81% of surveyed companies say that putting in place the most effective talent management strategy will be key to competitive success, whereas the HR function is often dismissed as non-essential or ineffective.

Performance management and HR in the work place needs to become much more forward looking rather than retrospective, in order to develop new levels of leadership and management ability.

In business, like in sport, the days of 'no hiding place' are fast approaching.

Paul MacKinnon joined thinkTASC, a new Northern Ireland professional business consultancy, earlier this year with the task of adapting the very successful sport based system to the workplace. This has created a new, simple to operate, web-based performance management system that changes the momentum and allows business and organisations to raise their game to deliver sustained success, with a focus on maximising performance in people.

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