Field of Dreams

June 7, 2000

Presentation Summary

An address to the Institute of Directors. Management is all about doing things right. Leadership is all about doing the right things. Inspiration, however, is about giving your people the confidence to be the best they can. Peak Performance takes concepts from elite professional sport to develop business organisation principles to suit fast moving, transformative, ambiguous, creative times.

Tulip field

If only meetings comprised two short halves; if only business people could harness the passion of the playing fields; if only they could express the sheer joy of performance. If only…if only England could find a middle order, a goal scorer, a try scorer, someone to stop Jonah Lomu.

All these things are possible – except maybe a firm English grip on Jonah. Perhaps, some might say, it’s even possible to ban the use of sporting-business analogies. But why should we? At the very least, they’re less offensive and a lot more fun than the military models peddled to businesses for too long.

Remember them? The attempts to turn modern executives into ancient Chinese warlords? Does anyone here still have their copy of Sun Tzu’s Art of War?

Lets face it: Would you rather go into a meeting worrying about feints, flanks and the chances of being taken from the rear, or would you rather go in inspired by a vision of a length-of-the-field try scored in extra time?

I’m definitely for the try scoring. This was a motivation behind the book Peak Performance: Business Lessons from the World’s Top Sports Organisations, which I wrote with three colleagues and was published this year by Harper Collins. These business lessons are the basis of my presentation to this conference on leadership.

Sporting imagery is embedded in the English language, and is therefore programmed into our minds. Along with its products and its people, England exported its games and their metaphors. English sports have also generated their own moral code: Keep your guard up, your bat straight, your aim true…And get your retaliation in first. These now appear as old economy values, inherently defensive, hardly the way to win the game today.

Sport too can make fools of us all. Sometimes the inconceivable happens; things just turn to merde. Witness the All Blacks last year. They were undone on the day by a team with greater imagination. But don’t worry, the All Blacks are getting another crack at the French – in a couple of months the Roosters will be feather dusters.

OK – we should keep sport in perspective. It’s not certain or predictable, it’s not pure, it’s not a religion – even though Bill Shankley really believed that “football is not just a matter of life and death – it’s more important than that.” And success in sport does not necessarily lead to success in any other endeavour – although it can (I myself played international rugby – for that European powerhouse, Switzerland).

Sport today is an awesome phenomenon. It’s a huge business, in the US it’s the tenth biggest industry. Sport is a universal interest, and for many people who don’t have much, it can offer the promise of a whole lot more.

Sport is also about fun and excitement; it’s about imagination and pure instinct; and it’s about the simple, uncomplicated joy of living. There’s more. Sport, professional sport – the sport played by the best sportspeople – inspires and unites. It’s a manifestation of work, commitment and concentration. It’s an expression of grace and power and will. It shows people under enormous pressure, performing to the peak of their ability.

This is Heady Stuff.

The sort of stuff I love to explore, love to find. Not so much individual brilliance – that can be appreciated, but I don’t think anyone’s ever been able to explain it. No, I wanted to find out about the environments that encourage consistent, sublime, performance. I wanted to find out whether peak performance has a matrix. And I was searching for a business model that was rooted in emotion.

On my website you’ll find a lot about the role of emotion in business and. The primary function of business communications is to make emotional connections with consumers.

There is only one way through the Attention Economy, and that is through emotion. Not information, but emotion.
Think about it. When you go through my website you’ll see the words, inspiration, love and community peppered throughout.

Looking at the current business literature for references to these emotional assets is a very brief exercise, not so with elite professional sport.

I talked about this passion of mine with Clive Gilson, Mike Pratt, and Ed Weymes who teach with me at the Management School at New Zealand’s Waikato University.

Each of us was totally dissatisfied with management orthodoxies, especially ones based on military metaphors – strategies to target the consumer; penetrate markets; destroy the competition; launch pre-emptive strikes on rivals; deploy salesforces to capture customers; saturate them with communications. And we were sick to death of downsizing, centralising, re-engineering, rightsizing and endless restructuring exercises.

OK, for many companies this might have been a necessary process for a period of time. But, as its suggestive name indicates, re-engineering is a mechanistic approach – and one that can become an end in itself. As a call to arms, it’s hardly rousing: Follow the guys with the pocket-protectors, the calculators, and the stunted social skills!

We were also tired of the introspection inherent in many theoretical approaches. Protracted navel-gazing is fine for a guy in charge of a Tesco’s produce section, but senior executives – and directors – must surely take a wider view.

That’s not what I come to work for. I come to work to be amazed, to enjoy myself and my company, not to wage war or engage in battle. I come to work to have fun.

Clive, Mike, Ed and I were seeking better organisational principles to suit fast moving, transformative, ambiguous, creative times. We took our cue from nature; we went organic, biological. We wanted to find business organisms that promoted growth and allowed for regeneration.

These were our Questions:

How is it possible to achieve peak performance, and keep improving year after year?

Can we discover the principles of sustained success?

Simply, how do you keep on winning?

Where better to look for answers, we thought, than in the environment where only the fittest prosper? You could say we took a Darwinian approach. We searched in the most competitive of all human domains – elite professional sport.

Because we were looking for some universal truths, not just special cases, we cast our specimen net widely. We crossed codes, countries and cultures. We looked for sporting organisations that had achieved consistent success for over a decade, not teams that had had a couple of good years. We were looking for adaptability as well as excellence.

These are the Organisations we Examined:

In Britain, the Williams Formula One team, with its obsessive desire to “go faster”.

In Germany, the national soccer team and the perennial champions, Bayern Munich – motto: “More than 1-0”.

In the United States, the Chicago Bulls, the Atlanta Braves and the San Francisco 49ers, all bywords, in their sports, for sustained achievement.

In Australia, the men’s national cricket team, with its utterly unreasonable expectation – and maddening ability – to win every test; and the women’s netball and hockey teams, as tough-minded as their sledging brothers.

In New Zealand, Team New Zealand, the yachties who took the Americans’ cup from them, and hung on to it. And the All Blacks, the oldest dynasty in world sport, a team with a 74 per cent win record over 104 years, for a century the team, in their code, that everyone has wanted to beat.

Right now in preparation for the publication of the US edition of the book we are finalising our studies on the New York Yankees and the US Women’s Soccer team.
The sporting organisations we visited were large and successful businesses. All are competing in the fast changing entertainment industry where patronage for the disposable dollar is fierce.

We were persistent, and fortunate. All of these organisations welcomed us, gave us information, allowed us access. The one place we couldn’t go was the dressing room of the Australian women’s hockey team. If anyone thinks we missed something essential there – well, Australia’s Olympic athletes have just released a book of photos that leaves only a few little bits to the imagination…

We discovered all of these peak performing organisations exhibited characteristics that transcend codes, geography, budgets, and gender. From our research we developed a theory for Peak Performing Organisations.

Following the organic and not the mechanistic approach, we saw Peak Performance as a river, a force of nature fed by three tributaries: Peak Purpose, Peak Practices, and Peak Flow. Each of these is fed by three streams – lots of watertalk.

Peak Purpose: first, set the Greatest Imaginable Challenge.

As our friend at Saatchi & Saatchi, Edward de Bono, says, “there’s no point in being brilliant at the wrong thing.”

Purpose needs a goal – not something within easy reach, but something that has been elusive: A prize that rewards real stretch. Progress to the goal is not just strenuous; it must be exciting and measurable and cumulative. For peak performers, yesterday’s summit is tomorrow’s base camp.

Look at the Aussie cricketers – they don’t want to win every series, they want to win every single test. Look at Team New Zealand, which pursued the America’s Cup, the Holy Grail of yachting, a prize protected by barriers of greenbacks and batteries of lawyers – grabbed it, kept it, and will hang on to it. Our greatest imaginable challenge is to win the America’s Cup forever.

The Second Conduit to Peak Purpose is the Inspirational Dream.

This is the difference between spirit and values. Take the Wild West. We all know the spirit of the Wild West – freedom, romance, the heady mix of tragedy and heroism. How about the values of the Wild West? Clunk. Who has any idea what they were?

Here’s a taste of the spirit of New Zealand. We want to become the funkiest, coolest, edgiest country in the world. We want to win the world from the edge…and we will.

The inspirational dream is not a pleasant fantasy; it’s not just fit for sharing – it demands to be shared. This dream must move people and make them want to belong. It must offer people meaning and the prospect of fulfilment.

An inspirational dream must be distilled into a few words. “Make magic”, say the Chicago Bulls; “the joy of speed”, say the Williams team. The mantra of my own company has been, right from the start, “nothing is impossible”.

Inspirational dreams can’t be small dreams. Many people would think that 1-0 is good enough. Team New Zealand’s record is 5-nil in two regattas. Bayern Munich want to go beyond the narrow victory. The Bavarians want world domination! Just kidding.

Bayern Munich has a vision that encompasses more than springing the offside trap once every Saturday. The club wants to achieve greatness; the people at the club believe that by doing as best as they humanly can, they’ll make their community stronger, and their society better.

The inspirational dream can come from an organisation’s collective memory. The good thing about this sort of memory is that it can be constantly recovered. Under Steve Waugh, for example, Australia’s cricketers pay homage to their icons: to Bradman, McCabe and Lindwall. The message is: the legend is more intimidating than the opposition.

The Third Component of Peak Purpose is Focus: the Dream in Action.

The dream given parameters. These borders are defined by the job, and also by the clock and the calendar. Achieve a result – today, this week, in the next 100 days. At its most intense, focus comes close to obsession.

The best focus stories are of quantum shifts achieved under pressure of time. Michael Jordan’s last second goal which won the Bulls’ last NBA title was a moment of pure, ecstatic focus

The Williams Formula One team, constantly designing better bolts, would be happy if you called them a bunch of obsessives. In fact, you could probably call them anything, as long as you didn’t call them slow – that’s the only four-letter word that offends them.

At Saatchi & Saatchi, our goal is to sell more stuff for our clients in 90 days. That’s why we’re leading Procter & Gamble’s new compensation arrangements. We believe we should benefit when our work does sell more stuff, and we should be disciplined when it doesn’t. It’s a no-brainer from a business perspective and I reckon it is going to shakeout the advertising industry real fast.

The second tributary of Peak Performance is Peak Practice. Again, there are three streams:

First, there’s the sharing of the dream. Teams that are consistently successful believe that in every game they have all to play for, everything to lose. They know they’re part of a continuum. They inherit a legacy of achievement, and before they pass it on, they’ve got to make it greater.

Dreams, we know, have symbols, and symbols can spur Peak Practice. The most potent symbol of sporting success I’ve ever seen is the All Black jersey. It’s simple, plain, black – and absolutely inspirational. It inspires awe – the All Blacks, it’s said, come dressed in mourning for their opponents. And, for the men who wear it, that jersey inspires a huge and humble pride.

Peak Practice organisations, of course, don’t just cherish their traditions; they create their own future. This is the second stream feeding Peak Practice. Organizations that want to regenerate themselves recruit astutely and train assiduously.

It’s true that sometimes you have to cut some wood. Evolution is essential to peak performance. But there is a difference between an organic and a mechanistic approach to achieving sustainable growth. We’re talking about selective pruning, not clear felling. Someone in the Chicago Bulls probably had to go so the light could shine on the young Michael Jordan.

And there is the necessary process of anointing the successor. In New Zealand we’ve recently had the sensation of Russell Coutts giving up the chance of becoming the greatest ever America’s Cup skipper by handing over the wheel to the young helmsman Dean Barker in the clincher race of the regatta.

It shouldn’t be surprising that organisations that honour their history and plan for their future also foster a strong sense of community. This is the third stream feeding Peak Practice.

In all the organisations we visited, trust, loyalty, respect, sacrificial play mattered more than rules. We were often struck by the informality of these organisations.

It’s true, we didn’t expect a lot of formality from Australian cricketers. But officials, and players, in organisations as proficient and thoroughly professional as the San Francisco 49ers, the Atlanta Braves and Bayern Munich, were all open, approachable, and confident.

I can tell you how good it has been to discover highly competitive organisations that are free from the constricting grip of fear, the suffocating effect of over-management.

It’s liberating, it’s energising, and it can be incredibly productive. And the key to community is communication.

The Third of the Tributaries is What we call Peak Flow.

Here’s how I distinguish Peak Flow from Peak Performance. Peak Performance is about achievement, reaching the destination; Peak Flow is about experience; the journey there.

Peak Flow is the state of being absorbed in a task, consumed by a challenge. It offers the deep satisfaction of a life in harmony: you’re doing the absolutely right thing at absolutely the right time in absolutely the right way. We’ve all experienced this feeling. This sense of mastery. These moments of magic. The times when we’re in the zone.

What are the ways into the zone? One way to success is to dedicate yourself to exceeding. In the teams we examined, there was a consistent emphasis on the need to exceed your personal best. Each person sets goals, each person has responsibilities. Sure, you can be satisfied with what you achieve – but don’t be satisfied for too long.

The second stream that feeds into Peak Flow is an unremitting attention to the last detail. This is probably the most tangible quality of Peak Performing Organizations. When winning margins are narrow, the smallest details are important.

Care is contagious. It’s a habit. Before Peter Blake won the America’s Cup with Team New Zealand, he won the Whitbread Round the World Race. To win that race, in the middle of a storm, you go down to the bilge, you lift the floorboards, sponge out a few litres of water, put the boards back. A few kilos lighter mean a few metres faster. So, you go down, and do it again, and again…

The Last of my Streams to the Last of my Tributaries is Imagining Game-Breaking Ideas.

Peak Performing Organizations push past the bounds, they experiment and they risk failure – because there is always a better way. They can live with ridicule. They’re not affected by what’s called, downunder, the tall poppy syndrome.

I love the attitude of the manager of the current Australian cricket team. Australia has a team of outrageously talented players. They now hold the record for most test wins on the trot.

So, what next? Well, this Aussie said, we’ve rewritten the records. Now we’ll shred the coaching manual. We think we’ll look for players who can bowl with both hands. And you know what, in the back streets of Wagga Wagga, he’ll probably find them.

I’ve talked about the elements of Peak Performance theory. I’d like to talk briefly about the embodiment of that theory – the Inspirational Player. Inspirational Player replaces the term leader and manager in the vocabulary of Peak Performance. IPs live the dream, they enforce the dream, make it move and inspire others.

I’ve mentioned several figures who have inspired their teams, their communities, their countries: Michael Jordan, Steve Waugh, Peter Blake, Jonah.

And there are other inspiring figures implicit in the success of their organisations: Frank Williams of Williams Formula One; Franz Beckenbauer of Bayern Munich; Vicki Wilson of the world champion Australian netball team; the great captains of great All Black teams down through the years…

Inspirational Players are in every section of life, they have powerful ideas, they are restless, they are role models who recruit, mentor and develop others. We’re not just talking about charismatic leaders who can single-handedly transform organisations: Inspirational Players are spread throughout organisations. Most have served their organisations for many years.

In our research we found many unlikely people who we also called Inspirational Players. There’s the 90 year-old usher at the San Francisco 49ers’ ground…Don’t worry, gridiron may be brutal, but it’s not that cruel – the old guy doesn’t do much ushering these days. He is known by everyone, is at every game in his uniform, and her is an essential part of the emotional architecture of the 49ers.

And there’s Rosie, for 30 years a receptionist at the New York Yankees. We saw her picture on a wall in the Players Lounge, surrounded by photos of famous sluggers.

Other business theories wouldn’t even have a category for an old usher and a retired receptionist. But to us the fact that these people are valued is evidence of a shared dream and a sense of community. Some people can lead, lots of people think they can manage. How many can inspire?

This is, above all, what Peak Performance is about. Inspiration. This is what drives a Peak Performance Organization. Inspiration. It’s not about management, doing things right. It’s not about leadership, doing the right things. It’s about inspiration – giving your people the confidence to be the best they can.

OK. Let’s Leave the Fields of Dreams.

Let’s go back to the boardrooms and think about the business lessons we can receive from the world’s top sports organisations. I’m telling you these lessons are absolutely relevant. I look at my company, Saatchi & Saatchi, and I see a Peak Performing Organization emerging – one that’s committed to sustained achievement, constant regeneration, long-term growth.

We have 7000 people working in 92 countries on this challenge on behalf of about 1,000 clients, including Procter & Gamble, Toyota, Visa, Hewlett Packard and Sony.

Our greatest imaginable challenge is to “be revered as the hothouse for world-changing creative ideas that transform our clients’ businesses, brands and reputations.”

Our focus is to do the best advertising in every category in every country. Our spirit is “nothing is impossible.”

Checking back over the nine principles you see a very clear picture of what a peak performing organization looks like. And it looks very much like the successful organisations of the new economy.

Where old economy companies stress structure and strategy and process, new economy companies hit what I call the “I’s” and the “E’s”.

If I were a typographer, I’d get by with only two capital letters. Give me I – for Ideas, Imagination, Insight, Instinct – and most importantly, Inspiration.

And give me E – for Edge, where all good ideas come from, for Energy, to give them life, for Empathy, for common understanding, for Excitement to turn it on, and Emotion, to enjoy it all.

Edge is especially important to me, coming as I do from the edge of the world in New Zealand. The biological metaphor proposes that gamebreaking ideas always come from the edge, where the orthodox ways of the centre have the least hold.

I get incensed at the term Knowledge Economy. Knowledge is a commodity, it’s everywhere, billions of people have it. The urging to become Knowledge Organisations is like asking Peter Blake to race in a rowboat. The Knowledge Economy sounds like being kept in after work to write lines. It’s so unsexy.

Instead, I’ve extracted the most potent metaphor already embedded in the term Knowledge Economy: Edge. Think about it: Peak Performance, bound up in I and E words, is the perfect means for uncovering and honing your Edge.

So…let’s hope England beat the Springboks in Africa, win Euro 2000, clean up in the Sydney Olympics and at least manage another draw with Zimbabwe.

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