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Aspiring to a more generative approach in organisational life


A number of months ago we started sketching out some ideas for what has since become the relearn Leadership offering we launched recently.

Then a significant focus of the programme was going to be on organisational design and dynamics in sport. The sudden & devastating onset of Covid-19 invited us to shift our focus somewhat, to helping leaders immediately navigate these uncertain waters. However, there is still going to be a strong component of surfacing the assumptions and beliefs that underpin predominant ways of organising, and in the process exploring more fruitful approaches.

To provide a more concrete sense of what might be discussed and deliberated upon, below are the notes I had initially jotted down in regards to patterns of dysfunction, and often times damage, I’ve experienced in sport organisations. These have a contextual bent towards so-called ‘high performance’ sport environments, as well as governing and funding bodies of sport at all levels.

These patterns are often evident in other organisational settings, and I propose part of the problem is senior leaders and executives in sport uncritically adopting organisational design, methods and approaches from outside of sport that ultimately act as rate limiters.

So, some brief thoughts on patterns of dysfunction and damage…


  • decision making – polarisation towards either…
    • excessive “make it up as you go” (often through a single heroic leader’s tacit knowledge/experience/gut instinct), or…
    • excessive planning, process & analysis (which becomes rigid & non-adaptive)
  • “knowledge boundaries”
    • people’s ability to work effectively together is prevented by epistemic differences, ie old experienced coach and the young upstart sport scientist
    • a problem amplified by organisational designs that isolate people (and “problems”) based on their knowledge/discipline, preventing interdisciplinary working (let alone transdisciplinary)
  • significant imbalances of power/control
    • underpinned by a range of beliefs/assumptions and expressed in a multitude of contexts & consequences (would be distracting to try to list them all here!)
    • results in atrophying of capability & agency in people (“just tell me what to do” ), creating a reinforcing feedback loop
  • what is valued is narrow & almost exclusively comparative/competitive (medals, trophies, participants, profit)
  • what is easily measured (quantified) distracts from attending to broader purpose & learning
    • “hitting the target, but missing the point”
    • the organisation becomes extractive and abusive through forcing/coercing/manipulating people to achieve targets and measures, whilst not attending to the “costs”
    • learning is inhibited as people game the system, hide “failures”, and/or focus on “low hanging fruit” in order to achieve targets


We could spend many hours diving into each of these  – if that prospect is something you find appealing and/or usefully challenging then the relearn Leadership programme may be of interest.

What we have learnt from our recent co-creative endeavours with partners is that a more collaborative and generative approach to sport is within our collective reach if we’re willing to do the work of bringing it to bear on organisational life.

(Image credit – thanks to Larry Paul)

relearn Leadership

…navigational support in times of uncertainty


What is our intent?

Modern society is rapidly changing and becoming increasingly uncertain. The advent of the Covid-19 pandemic has further amplified this volatility and presented those in leadership positions, including those in sport, with a range of highly complex challenges to navigate. We believe that the circumstances we currently find ourselves in are asking significant questions of whether our old ways of working are still fit for purpose:

What does it mean to recognise and attend to our responsibilities as custodians of our sporting way of life?

How can we ensure that our sport is meaningfully and purposefully connected to our communities?

How might we best organise the resourcing of sporting endeavour in a spirit of mutuality and common purpose?

Our view is that those leaders who are willing to sit with questions like these can sieze the moment and harness an urgent and exciting opportunity to ‘relearn’ leadership & organisational approaches to life in sport. We have set up this 6-month online learning programme to support up to a dozen such leaders, on a personal and professional journey of fellowship, accompanied by Mark, Al & Jono.

Who is it for?

Most likely people who hold senior positions in a sports organisation, and particularly those at a “system(ic) level” in national/governing bodies.

You could be a:

• Board Member/Director/CEO

• Performance/Sporting Director

• Head of Coaching/Performance

• Head of Participation/Community

• Head of Talent/Pathways

• Director of School Sport

Central to this programme is the concept of “action learning”, therefore you will need to be in a position to take action, experiment & collaborate with others inside and outside of your organisation. There will also be an option to involve 1or 2 other people from your organisation in aspects of the programme.



What will the journey involve?

• You will undertake an “action learning” project based around a current challenge or dilemma in your role/organisation, with Mark, Al & Jono directly supporting you as you navigate this challenge

• You will be involved in a community of practice – sharing experiences with others and being able to tap into the wisdom of our community “fellows” who have already taken steps down this path – a combination of group calls and online spaces for collaboration will be offered

• You will have access to a carefully curated network of content and material that will help you reflect, stimulate new thinking and connect practice with theory



First 6-month cohort commencing in May 2020

Please email to explore your interest further

View/download the relearnLeadership flyer


Wisdom (part V)

The previous post in this series featured Henry Mintzberg’s critique of New Public Management and its propensity for mindless measurement. As such, late last week I returned to the main protagonist of this series, Dee Hock, and sought out a collation of his thoughts regarding measurement.

This coincided with a couple of enriching conversations in the latter half of the week. One was a sharing of critical reflections with a partner on an on-going coach development engagement. Through those reflections we’ve realised that we had fallen for the trap of jumping straight to data capture and measurement, to the detriment of building the relational quality and cognitive coherence with the people we were trying to support in a new way of working. We new at the out-set of this project that a tension existed with the organisation commissioning the work and their propensity for “insight capture”, yet we did not attend to that tension and the subtle influence it was having. However, having taken the time to restore dialogue and inquiry, it feels like we have learnt from our mis-steps and are now on a more fruitful path. Dee Hock…

The language of financial accounting merely asserts answers, it does not invite inquiry. In particular it leaves unchallenged the world view that underlies the way organizations operate. Thus, management accounting has served as a barrier to genuine organizational learning. . . . Never again should management accounting be seen as a tool to drive people with measures. Its purpose must be to promote inquiry into the relationships, patterns and processes that give rise to accounting measures.

Last week also contained a delightful encounter with Cormac Russell. This was our first conversation with Cormac and his wisdom regarding “community” was both energising and enlightening. Amidst this exchange he posed to us the following…

‘Where is community for you and have you been there recently?’

I invite you to take the time to sit with that question.

With that front of mind, as I pulled together the final quotes on measurement from Dee Hock it was surely no coincidence that he also frequently spoke of “community”. Below is that collation…

What if our notions of separability, particularity, and measurement, useful as they may be in certain circumstances, are just momentary, mental aberrations in the mysterious evolution of consciousness?

For all the wonders of modern science and its obsession with measurement, I believe life will never surrender its secrets to a yardstick

Is it any wonder a society that worships the primacy of measurement, prediction, and control should result in massive destruction of the environment, gross maldistribution of wealth and power, enormous destruction of species, the Holocaust, the hydrogen bomb, and countless other horrors?

Community is composed of things that we cannot measure, for which we keep no record and ask no recompense. Since they can’t be measured, they can’t be denominated in dollars, or barrels of oil, or bushels of corn—such things as respect, tolerance, love, trust, generosity, and care, the supply of which is unbounded and unlimited.

If we were to set out to design an efficient system for the methodical destruction of community, we could do no better than our present efforts to monetize all value and reduce life to the tyranny of measurement. Money, markets, and measurement have their place. They are important tools indeed. We should honor and use them. But they do not deserve the deification their apostles demand of us, before which we too readily sink to our knees. Only fools worship their tools.

Because we cannot mathematically measure the non-monetary, voluntary exchange of value, we cannot prove to our rational mind the efficiency of the whole or the parts. Nor can we engineer or control that which we cannot measure. Non-monetary exchange of value frustrates our craving for perfect predictability and control that monetary exchange always promises but can never deliver. When we monetize value, we have a means of measurement, however misleading, that allows us to calculate the relative efficiency of each part of the system. It doesn’t occur to us that we are destroying an extremely effective system whose values we can’t calculate in order to calculate the efficiency of an ineffective system. It doesn’t occur to us that attempting to engineer mechanistic societies and institutions based on mathematical measurement may be fundamentally flawed. As the popular dictum declares, “What gets measured is what gets done.” Perhaps that’s precisely the problem.

In the years ahead we must get beyond numbers and the language of mathematics to understand, evaluate, and account for such intangibles as learning, intellectual capital, community, beliefs, and principles.


References & Image Credits

Wisdom (part IV)

Part II in this series referenced Dee Hock’s observation that data is abundant, whilst wisdom is scarce. Dee’s comments were published in 2005 yet feel particularly resonant in the present day.

In a couple of posts (1 & 2) Gerry McGovern tries to help us grasp the almost unfathomable escalation in abundant digital data…

In the last two years, we have created more data than in all previous history. We are now talking about zettabytes of data, a volume of data that is almost impossible to imagine.

Gerry concludes his 2nd post by stating…

Organizations are collecting digital data simply because they can…we will have all this data and we will end up less able to make timely, quality decisions.

 Being “less able to make timely, quality decisions” suggests we are struggling to level-up to Dee Hock’s conceptions of “knowledge” and “understanding”, let alone “wisdom”.

Sports organisations are no exception. One of the most prominent examples of collecting data “simply because you can” is in the explosion of player/athlete tracking data and the area of “load management”. About 3 years ago some of my former colleagues realised this was becoming a systemic issue and we subsequently launched a significant project to dampen the rising narrative that simply measuring (quantifying) more stuff was the answer to better managing load and injury.

Some wise practitioners are also starting to question this and the wider use of data in coaching…

Of course sports organisations limited by measurement are nothing new. Kelvin Giles on his experiences over many years…

No school or governing body (of sport) will do anything unless they can measure it. If you can’t measure it then it won’t exist because no organisation will consider it.

Considering the words of Henry Mintzberg, perhaps this can be traced back to New Public Management…

Meanwhile, under the banner of the “New Public Management”, a euphemism for old corporate practices, public services that cannot be turned into businesses are supposed to pretend that they are businesses: put heroic leaders in charge, reorganize constantly, measure like mad, and reengineer everything in sight. Most activities are in government because they cannot be managed like businesses. How is diplomacy supposed to be so managed? How do you measure what a child learns in a classroom without destroying the quality of the education? A senior British civil servant, when asked why there had been such a profusion of measurement in his ministry, replied, “What else are we to do when we don’t understand what’s going on?” How about trying to connect, to communicate, even to use judgment? (Remember judgment?)

Asked last year to write a proposal for shifting to new ways of working in a governing body of sport, I shared the following perspective…

For many sports organisations common sense has not translated into common practice. Predominant ways of working in organisations are founded on beliefs and assumptions at odds with the latest theory and (common sense) practice regarding complex human and social systems. Related, the uncritical adoption of corporate business models (disposed to maximizing a singular value, namely profit) and a fixation on management by metrics are pitfalls we increasingly see in sport contexts. These often do enormous damage to the human element of life in sport – most obviously through breakdowns in relationships, trust, engagement and learning.

We’re on a curious trajectory…

The real problem of humanity is the following: we have paleolithic emotions; medieval institutions; and god-like technology. And it is terrifically dangerous, and it is now approaching a point of crisis overall. - E. O. Wilson
References & Image Credits

Wisdom (part III)

As evidenced in the last post in this series, at times Dee Hock is explicit in sharing his views on the subject of “wisdom”. At other times he demonstrates his own wisdom in a more subtle manner.

In working through the common responses those in power have to a rapidly changing world (from “doubling-down” to denial) he states…

Those in positions of power, wealth, and prestige who tenaciously cling to the present order of things deserve understanding, not condemnation, for they intuitively sense what Machiavelli discovered five centuries ago when he wrote: “Nothing is more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct or more uncertain of success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.

No one should be condemned for failure to welcome change.

These statements reveal an ethical dimension to Dee, a crucial aspect of “wisdom”. Despite his palpable frustration and disappointment at the rigidity of organisations and institutions past and present, he protects both his own and others dignity.

we should never act in ways that undermine the equality and dignity of all people – ourselves included. (Ethics Centre)

That said, he remains firm in encouraging organisational leaders to find the courage and faith to undertake the journey of transforming their worldview…

Changing an internal model of reality is extremely difficult, often terrifying, and always complex. It requires a meticulous, painful examination of beliefs. It requires fundamental understanding of consciousness and how it must change. It destroys our sense of time and place. It calls into question our very identity. We can never be sure of our place or our value in a new order of things. Changing our internal model of reality requires an enormous act of faith, for it requires time to develop, and we require time to grow into it.

Yet it is the only workable solution.

From my perspective this journey does not have to be taken alone. Rather than isolated individuals undertaking a heroic quest, instead I feel it could be a collective endeavour – underpinned by a sense of dignity and fellowship.

The hopes of future generations, in sport and beyond, could hinge on us coming to this “only workable solution”.

References & Image Credits

Wisdom (part II)

As Australia was thrown into chaos and faced its future over the Christmas and New Year period, I sought moments of sanctuary in the writings and wisdom of Dee Hock. I would like to share a collection of Dee’s thoughts specific to wisdom, and in that sense continue on from yesterdays post.
The below are Dee’s attempts to articulate, define and cohere ‘noise, ‘information’, ‘knowledge’ and ‘wisdom’… 
Noise, in its broadest sense, is any undifferentiated thing that assaults the senses. It is pervasive and ubiquitous, whether auditory, visual, or textural. The supply of noise is infinite. 
Noise becomes data when it transcends the purely sensual and has cognitive pattern; when it can be discerned and differentiated by the mind. 
Data, in turn, becomes information when it is assembled into a coherent whole that can be related to other information in a way that adds meaning. 
Information becomes knowledge when it is integrated with other information in a form useful for deciding, acting, or composing new knowledge. 
Knowledge becomes understanding when related to other knowledge in a manner useful in conceiving, anticipating, valuing, and judging. 
Understanding becomes wisdom when informed by purpose, ethics, principle, memory of the past, and projection into the future. 
I am particularly interested in the transformation of understanding to wisdom. Dee’s description resonates with a framework we use to help people act wisely in the present. This involves connecting their past, present and future through three perspectives – personal, situational and systemic (socio-cultural)
Dee goes on to distinguish the abundance of ‘data’ from the scarcity of ‘wisdom’, and the dangerous path we are treading…
The fundamental characteristics of the opposite ends of this spectrum are very different. Data, on one end of the spectrum, is separable, objective, linear, mechanistic, and abundant. Wisdom, on the other end of the spectrum, is holistic, subjective, spiritual, conceptual, creative, and scarce. 
The immensity of data and information that assaults our lives is conditioned by an ever-declining ratio of social, economic, and spiritual value. Vast scientific, technological, and economic power is thus unleashed with inadequate understanding of its systemic propensity for destruction, or sufficient wisdom to creatively, constructively guide its evolution.
…thus, we remain confined within our archaic seventeenth-century concepts of organization and leadership
His final remark frames our passion and intent to support people in transitioning to the next generation of sport organisations and institutions. I’m very aware that attempting this will challenge my own capacity to act wisely.
References & Image Credits