67 posts

Cloaked in Culture


When “culture” suddenly rockets up the agenda in a sport organisation it is often cloaking an admission that…

“We’ve stopped caring for people & attending to relational quality”

In that context, convening a safe conversational space to surface the enabling forces contributing to this mis-step can be a useful starting point. Whilst there is significant care and craft required to create and invite people into such a space, I’m not sure it needs to be any more elaborate than that. 

On this theme, hat-tip to fellow co-creator Jono Byrne for bringing Peter Block & “touchy feely crap” to my attention some years ago…




How can the next generation of sport organisations and institutions add value?

The post I published a couple of weeks ago represented a return to blogging after a lengthy hiatus and the first new post to be published on our (myfastestmile) platform. I’m hoping to sustain a more regular rhythm of posts as we tick over into a new decade (wow!).

As has been the case previously, these posts are intended for my own personal benefit (“thinking out loud” and sensemaking), stimulating people to engage in conversation and share perspectives, sharing interesting links and material, and sometimes “working out loud” in relation to what we are up to at myfastestmile.

On that last point, in the last few months we have published our first “field report” and hope to make this an annual publication – you can freely download a copy. At the end of this post I’ll also share some updates about “relearn” initiatives in the works.

With that bit of framing out of the way…


(image source)

Peter Keen spoke at the AIS World Class to World Best conference a few weeks ago. I wasn’t in attendance so do not have his narrative to accompany this slide. Instead I would like to share some of the questions, reflections and connections this material has stimulated.

My immediate curiosity was if Peter, when using the phrase high performance sport at its best, was referring to the qualities of athletes/teams on display in the competitive arena or something broader – maybe qualities of a particular ‘form of life’ for people involved in a high performance sport community?

I also wondered if he was being intentionally provocative in listing some of the qualities. It struck me that a growing tension exists between emotion, artistry, creativity & intuition, and the technocratic rationality of our organisations and institutions. Do people, when in organisational and institutional roles, interact in ways that enable these qualities to emerge and flourish?

Value Add

Likely unbeknown to him, Peter has also played a formative role in the myfastestmile journey. Fortunate to be present when he shared a critical reflection on sport a couple of years ago, we have since moulded this into a question that invites people into a deliberative dialogue around the value of sport (at any level). I left this question with people at Football Victoria’s State Coaching Conference last weekend…

I feel this question deserves particular attention as, through the dynamic interplay of the political~economic~technological, Western culture becomes further disposed to extraction rather than creation of value, and mainstream management culture increasingly values control and reduction. The “model” below, a mashup of ideas from Ed Schein, Philip Zimbardo, Urie Bronfenbrenner, Kristoffer Henriksen & James Vaughan, is an attempt to depict the presence of these influences in relation to sport participants (images in centre circle) and the people that (in)directly support them (green circle). 

I’m proposing the need for greater awareness of the presence and influence of these forces on peoples behaviour and interactions in sport. I feel this could be a key to adding value.

How can the next generation of sport organisations and institutions play a role that adds value?

As in the last post, I’m trying to amplify initiatives that provide an alternative path for people to explore. Much of the following is underpinned by a shift in beliefs and assumptions about the nature of people, management and ways of organising.

So, how can the next generation of sport organisations and institutions play a role that adds value?

* They could be designed on the principles of empathy, care and dignity

I mean these principles in a precise way. A radical way. A transformational way. A way that has to do with what it means to be human, and the ache we feel just existing. We don’t talk often enough about such things these days. We have forgotten the truth in ourselves, my friends.

* They could unshackle themselves from Outcome-Based Performance Management and become Human Learning Systems

this isn’t the easy path. It takes time to build relationships and trust. It requires us to be people-driven rather than focused on process, and to take decisions which require professional judgement and empathy, whilst creating a more community-led response to the challenges we face. This approach will raise profound challenges for those of us who assess risk and demonstrate accountability. We will need to re-calibrate our thinking for a complex 21st century world.

* They could move from hierarchy to coaching people and self-organising

Before moving to self-management we operated the way most organisations do: we had a hierarchy, line managers, and all the other features you’d find in most places. Why? Because that’s how work works, doesn’t it?

* They could shift away from elaborate long-term strategic plans towards helping people be guided by strategic intent when “choosing the opportune moment to act”

This shift away from an organisational paradigm that is rooted in compliance with top-down strategy plans and towards a paradigm that encourages everyone in the organisation to align to and deliberate over a commonly agreed set of organisational principles is at the heart of Richard’s leadership work and central to his belief in the power of sport to change lives for the better.

Changing Course

As I’ve heard a couple of senior executives in sport intimate recently, it can be a real challenge to find the time to “get your head up and reflect”. This is one of the unintended consequences of the “hamster wheel” ethos, helping to lock-in the status quo.

I believe we can and must find the time…and then create conversational containers where the ways to add value in sport are explored, tensions are surfaced and a sense of fellowship might emerge. In the words of Junaid Mubeen, “it is okay to step off the path once in a while; it may even be necessary to enable our richest learning experiences.”

Doing so may enable us to change course – away from extractive and reductive forms of life toward a different way of being, seeing and doing in sport – filled with emotion, artistry, creativity and intuition.


When it comes to cultural change we excessively fixate on the critical mass and underestimate the catalytic quality of the improbable few. The ‘critical yeast’ — these small, unlikely, combinations of persistent people and partnerships committed to a new quality of relationship — dwell before and behind every instance of social change that truly shifts what is possible and transformative across generations.

– John Paul Lederach


Our relearn events act as ‘conversational containers’ and we plan to hold our next gathering in the first few months of 2020. It will likely be framed around themes in this post and therefore most relevant for people holding senior positions in sport clubs, organisations, institutions, funding and governing bodies. If you are interested in being involved please get in touch and share your thoughts. 

We also have an aspiration to launch an online relearn programme in the early part of next year for people in the positions mentioned above. Intended as a personal and professional developmental journey, it could include a self-selected ‘action learning’ project (with our 1-1 mentoring support), invitation to participate in a community of practice (which we will facilitate), and access to carefully curated content specifically chosen to compliment the other 2 components of the programme. Please let us know if this is of interest and what you would most value from such an opportunity.

Smelling the chips whilst walking along the beach

(image source)

I imagine the title of this post would invoke pleasant memories for the many Australians exposed to the combinatory effects of these two sensory experiences. Unfortunately such positive feelings are not the launch point for this post, but hopefully I can finish back there.

Here is the note I made on Sunday night about events earlier in the day…

We walked alongside two teenage boys during our family walk on the beach this morning, they were probably about 13 or 14. As we passed them I overheard one say to the other ‘I’ve quit my team this year. We had 5 state players in our team and I was just an average player….[pause]…they were a bit mean’ 

My immediate emotional reaction was pure sadness as I glanced back at the young boy who had spoken. A few moments later that turned to anger and frustration, which my partners ears bore the verbal brunt of for the next 5 minutes.

If the evolutionary purpose of emotion is to “evoke motion” then this blog post is the expression of that. However, rather than fuelling the outrage machine, I’ll be trying to channel this in a more constructive direction.

“Smelling the Chips”

Metaphorically, you could say my experience on the beach provided a “smell of the chips”. To trace the roots of the metaphor I need to re-tell a story shared over breakfast the morning after the Bunker.

A young man, Andrew, had moved into an apartment with an existing tenant, John. Whilst Andrew hadn’t detected it when briefly inspecting the apartment, after less than a day he began to notice a certain odour. When John returned home that evening, the smell was even stronger on him. Andrew asked John what it was and where it was coming from. John was a bit puzzled as he could not smell anything, but as Andrew detailed the odour more specifically the penny dropped and he explained that much of his work involved preparing and frying hot potato chips. The odour had originated from John’s work clothing and now lingered permanently in the apartment.

A few weeks after moving into the apartment, it suddenly occurred to Andrew that he could no longer smell the chips either…’huh’ he thought.

In light of this, “smelling the chips” is a useful metaphor for the heightened awareness of culture when first encountering, or returning to, a place/environment (particularly if it contrasts significantly with your personal history of place). According to Richard Eckersley (link)…

…cultures tend to be ‘transparent’ or ‘invisible’ to those living within them because they comprise deeply internalized assumptions and beliefs, making their effects hard to discern. As Ellen Corin says, cultural influences are always easier to identify in unfamiliar societies. Our own cultures appear to constitute a natural order that is not itself an object of study. This impression, she says, is an ‘unsupported ethnocentric illusion’.

Returning to Australia after 4 years away in the UK has given me the opportunity to smell the chips Down Under and they are frequently proving unpleasant, if not somewhat familiar to my prior country of residence and even more so across The Pond.

The walk on the beach was yet another jarring reminder of the implications this is having for young people and their experiences in sport, and others are starting to ask questions of a “meaner and less equal society”.

That being said, I did promise a constructive post so let’s turn to some promising conversations, events and innovations that could enable people, through sport, to lead society towards better smelling chips.

The Reading Gathering

Yesterday we had the privilege of hosting Ric Shuttleworth and Alex Beckey as they facilitated an open forum for anyone interested in discussing their perspectives on current and future needs in Physical Education, Physical Development, Movement Literacy, and Organised Sport”. Here are a couple of immediate reflections…

Informal Sport
A group from Monash University are exploring the benefits and challenges of informal sport participation

One of the challenges is how formal entities like sport clubs and organisations can create synergies with informal participation opportunities. Something I am trying through my son’s local football (soccer) club is coordinating “free play” sessions where kids can turn up and just play, whether that be football or other ball sports. In this sense I am following the lead of Joey Peters and hope to bring even a small sprinkling of the joy and passion she displays.

(update: I should also mention Craig Gunn as someone who embodies joy and passion!)

Youth Sport Summit

This Thursday Flinders University in Adelaide are hosting a Youth Sport Summit featuring a range of presentations “to arrest pervasive challenges, enhance practices and redefine priorities for the South Australian sport sector.” I look forward to attending and being part of the conversation (hopefully the work of the “graphic recorder”, who will be present to capture and illustrate the topics discussed, will be shared online).

AIK Fotboll, Swedish Sport and the UN Rights of the Child

Sweden enshrining into sport law the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is a significant moment, as it invites the global sport community to critically examine the sport experience of young people and the adult influences upon them.  AIK Fotboll have been leading this movement over the last few years and we have been fortunate to share in some of their journey as a critical friend.

There is no such thing as an elite child. And this language is adding to the anxiety…of the kids and the parents.

– Mark O Sullivan from AIK Fotboll in an extensive interview with the Irish Examiner

Through myfastestmile we want to both contribute to and help join up these conversations. We sense the urgent need to rebalance society and believe people in sport, through great vigilance and care, can lead the way.

How are the chips smelling in your part of the world?

Hitting the Brakes

Mark Upton
Apr 2 2019

A short reflection on experiences with people in sport organisations where the opening engagements have touched on aspects of complex systems/theory/thinking…

Enthusiasm is initially high for the sexy aspects operating at the layer of “approaches“ depicted below. Tools (Sensemaker) and to a lesser extent frameworks (Constraints, Cynefin, Bioecological) often generate curiosity, energy and optimism.

A deeper dive exploring the layer of “beliefs” can be a different story however…

…as it becomes evident to people that alternative ways of organising are possible – but will almost certainly require perturbing and relearning of power/hierarchical structures and (limits of) control. That’s when things can grind to a halt…sometimes amidst visceral reactions to the prospect of shifting power dynamics and uncertainty. Political game-playing also seems to kick in at this point!

On a positive note, this phase can be extremely valuable as it asks the question of us all in regards to our collective commitment to proceeding with the real job of work. Where we have proceeded, the sexy tools seem to fade into the background or are implemented with a very different intent – for learning & generative listening; not “customer insight”, “monitoring”, “impact evaluation”, “performance management” or “accountability”.

The Leader who Listened

Mark Upton
Mar 1 2019

“They are after strong leadership…someone to come in with a clear plan”

A snippet from a recent conversation where we discussed a national sports body looking to fill a senior position in the organisation. It drew me back to a moment in time a couple of years ago where my conversational partner burst out in exasperation “she just doesn’t listen!” in regards to a “strong leader” occupying a similar senior position with a national sports body (in a different country).

Yet why would they listen? There is no need to listen when the expectation (held by them and/or others) is they already have all the answers and just need to direct people to execute their allocated duties against The Plan.

Where does this desire for the archetypical “heroic leader” come from? And what context(s), if any, is it suited to? The senior position to be filled in the example above faces a number of long-standing challenges in the sport that could be deemed intractable/wicked/stuck problems. Arguably listening, rather than enforcing predetermined plans and directions, could be amongst the most useful approaches employed in these contexts. But what kind of listening?

Beth Tener has written a great post on listening, referencing Otto Scharmer’s Theory U. Reading Beth’s post brought me back to previous explorations of Scharmer’s collaborative endeavours, in particular the highly aspirational Societal Transformation Lab.

Listening is at the source of all great leadership. A key source of leadership failure is lack of listening.”

– Otto Scharmer

4 ways of listening are defined (read Beth’s post for more detail):

  • downloading
  • factual
  • empathic
  • generative

Aspects of what Beth goes on to describe of generative listening in group settings very much resonates with our efforts at myfastestmile to facilitate similar with people in sport…

“…encourage empathic and generative listening, providing the space for many people to share their ideas and stories and encouraging participants to listen for patterns and new connections. In cross-pollinating small group conversations around an open question, new connections are generated and new ideas pop up more frequently.”

The above quote captures a significant shift in how ideas and stories are used that we are exploring with sports organisations. Rather than a central body gathering “insight” and making decisions from on high, people “on the ground” who have stories to share are also involved in the subsequent deliberation, sensemaking and strategic decisions. Further, on-going and open invitations to “join the conversation” largely replace traditional consultations and surveys.

It’s often messy and uncertain work, requiring of formal leaders not just a different way of “doing”, but perhaps more so a different way of “being”. A frequent pondering is whether the demanding nature of working in this way will limit adoption…given heroic leadership is the easier and more orthodox option.

Therefore, how might we find ways to encourage more people to examine the history and assumptions underlying this leadership orthodoxy? And could that open up the possibility of an even more significant shift, from focusing on leadership to fellowship?

Sport Systems – fragments of thought #14

Mark Upton
Nov 30, 2018

previous fragments – #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #7, #8, #9, #10, #11, #12, #13

Much of this series, from the very first post, has been exploring the dynamics that shape and shift sport in various directions. More specifically, the dynamics that shape and shift the intentions and actions of PEOPLE in sport. Whilst I hope some of the posts have provided readers a stimulus for reflection and critical conversation, they were also an attempt at personal coherence and to inform myfastestmile’s purpose and principles. The multiple layers and dimensions depicted in the visual at the top of this post point to the evolution in our thinking since the visual below used in the first post…

The timing feels right to wind the series up by sharing our collective coherence through an invitation to work in fellowship with people who have high aspirations for sport…

“how does your life in sport add value to you, your opponent, your sport and your community?” – Al Smith

For those who choose to accept this invitation and ‘step in’, our aim is to mobilise a community of activists who aspire to see sport act as a beacon for the richness and depth of humanity, who recognise that realising such lofty aims requires a committed engagement to the long, hard yards of developing and sustaining deeply purposeful human relations and who crave a meaningful connection to fellow travellers on their learning journey.

For us, this endeavour starts with a willingness to truly sit with the question above and consider its implications for our life in sport. For those who join us we aim to curate opportunities to get under the skin of the tensions that it surfaces by exploring the theoretical basis for the emergence of healthy human ecologies in relation to our hard won experience of the realities of life in sport.

“True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care -with no one there to see or cheer. This is the world.” — David Foster Wallace

In travelling this journey we will confront the underlying dynamics that influence the shifting sporting landscape for better and for worse (from adding to extracting value from self and others). We will examine and scrutinise our emerging coherence regarding the conditions for value creation:

  • a willingness to sit with a diversity of aims, approaches and outcomes
  • the fortitude to take a principled approach and enable all to act with strategic intent
  • the personal courage to look into the shadow as well as the light to inform a forward path

…whilst exercising probity and care in attending to the conditions for value extraction:

  • individual achievement/status exclusively determining personal worth and belonging
  • severe narrowing of focus such that “winning stuff”, be that league, medal, participant or profit tables, becomes the purpose (often at an implicit level whilst higher/broader purpose still adorns posters, documents and public discourse)
  • significant imbalances of power and attempts to control others
  • unexamined assumptions and outcomes emerging from common organisational paradigms and practices

In surfacing these dynamics we intend to stimulate both deliberation (embracing tensions and divergent perspectives) and exploratory action that enables people to discover rich forms of life in sport.

So what, exactly, are we inviting people to partake in?

In line with the aspirations conveyed in this post, and guided by our working principles, we intend to convene a space where fellow travellers who are ready and willing to ‘step in’ can engage with us in shaping a forward path. So, keep an eye out next week as we share more information and formally invite expressions of interest to help found and co-create a Life in Sport Fellowship.

If you have any immediate thoughts to share with us please do get in touch.


Mark, Jono & Al
co-creators @ myfastestmile