Innovation: Up Shit Creek Without a Paddle… #5

The learning organisation

Jono Byrne
Aug 21, 2017

Read episodes #1, #2, #3 and #4

The prologue

Episode 4 saw me drowning in an unravelling ‘innovation’ programme for a Team GB Olympic sport.

My ‘missionary’ zeal for science and data had antagonised the sporting tribe I’d intruded into.

As Rio 2016 drew close, something had to give…

My escape

As Shit Creek dragged me under, I needed to be saved.

My salvation came from a community of true believers in the power of science and data. I was summoned back to the ‘Church of Marginal Gains’.

Among my own kind, I blamed others for the failures up Shit Creek.

I wasn’t the only one guilty of self-delusion. Other sport scientists had become fixated on science and data. They believed it was the ‘one true path’ to a promised land of Olympic medals.

But I had doubts. Was there really a ‘magic bullet’ for sporting success?

I was losing my faith.

Zealots, heretics, and reformers

A church can be a force for good. A place for the community to reaffirm its commitment to the common good. A source of support for those in need.

But everything has its shadow.

For a church it’s fundamentalism. ‘Zealots’ with fixed beliefs in ‘one true path to righteousness’ and vehement intolerance of alternatives.

In the Church of Marginal Gains, a small minority of zealots made grand promises of the power of science and data.

Some had never lived among a sporting tribe. But they believed they knew what mattered. And, as I once did, that they could measure, analyse, and ‘manage’ it.

I faced a dilemma. Join a ‘crusade’ to spread the word of science and data or face expulsion as a ‘heretic’.

An old friend showed me an alternative. The way of the reformer. A path of deep reflection on the Church’s true purpose.

To serve the sporting tribes rather than convert them.

The lessons

On our recent Nordic travels, Al Smith and I visited the homeland of historic reformer and ‘Father of Modern Denmark’ Nikolai Grundtvig.

He believed in:

“a freedom that ensured the individual citizen the same potential for life and action everyday as that citizen would wish for his neighbours.”

Danish law mandates that its sports system operates in a “socially responsible way”. Grundtvig would approve.

In Norway, we met Professor Oyvind Sandbakk. A humble man of science, drawing strength and wisdom from experiences as an elite athlete and coach.

More likely to ask insightful questions than give a premature answer to your problems. Professor Sandbakk cares for and respects the ‘craft’ of coaches and athletes.

His words were humbling.

I’d been too busy trying to demonstrate my ‘expertise’ in elite sport. Unintentionally condescending people I considered lacking.

Decades ago, Michael Polanyi taught that “we can know more than we can tell”.

As a scientist, I found the methods of elite coaches messy and inconsistent. They couldn’t tell me what they knew.

But I underestimated their wisdom.

One coach I worked with had never seen an excel spreadsheet. But he could see things I couldn’t see, let alone measure.

History proves he knows what matters. He’s helped athletes win medals at 3 successive Olympic Games.

Arie de Geus’ quote “the ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage” is much abused.

Up Shit Creek, I learned a hard lesson…

That the true ‘learning organisation’ is one that listens to all sources of wisdom, in and around it. Not just the fashionable voices.

Heart surgeon Paul Uhlig said it best:

“…bring the people involved together and ask them what works and why. Create protected time for people to meet and reflect. Their shared dedication to excellence will drive things forward from there. Creating opportunities for reflective conversations to happen — making places where people can reconsider their beliefs and expectations together — is how real reform begins…

…the methods for accomplishing this are not hard. They are just different and more rewarding than what we do today.”

In episode 4, I spoke of the importance of relationships in elite sport.

Can we reform the relationship between coaching and sports science?

Can we reform the relationship between those who fund sport and those who make it happen?

That would be ‘innovation’ worth doing.

It’s time to move beyond Shit Creek…

…in search of better routes to the future of sport.