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)