Not Just Cricket

At the beginning of the summer the prognosis was grim. The English cricket team had just been knocked out of the world cup culminating in a defeat by Bangladesh, the Kevin Pietersen debacle stubbornly dragged on and the humiliation of the previous year’s Ashes whitewash in Australia lingered. “Don’t watch, just hide behind the sofa” was the cry of an ex-England opening batsmen turned pundit. Yet here we are after a truly fantastic summer of cricket, with the Ashes regained and the England side having set a date to see the PM at No. 10.

Ok so why cricket?

Exploring the remarkable turnaround in fortunes of English cricket unearths some highly relevant lessons for the entrepreneur and the mechanics of running a high growth small business.

The team environment – Over the course of the summer there were a number of brilliant individual contributions that saw the fastest test century witnessed at Lords by Ben Stokes, Joe Root becoming the No.1 ranked batsmen in the world and Steven Finn return to form with the sixth best strike rate of the post war era. Yet during the preceding year these three players had been respectively left out of the world cup team, dropped for the final test of the Ashes in Australia and sent home from Australia deemed “unpickable” by the coach. The question of what had changed this summer is answered partially by the installation of new management but more importantly a change in team environment. Previous management had looked to continue a style of defensive, atritional cricket that had successfully served the previous well skilled and again importantly experienced side. These new less experienced players needed a different environment that embraced risk and empowered the individual. Applying the rigid hierarchical structures of large and similarly defensive corporates to a small high growth business does not work. As an entrepreneur you need to provide autonomy to your team to make decisions and take risks, giving them and your company a chance to thrive. Facebook’s original mantra of “move fast and break things” perfectly encapsulates this point.

Home advantage – one of the many vagaries of international cricket is the differing states of the pitches played on. Players hone their skills before international cricket beckons, playing in their home countries on surfaces that can greatly differ to those found abroad. Rightly or wrongly it is a long tradition in cricket to seize this advantage and cultivate pitches to suit the home side, albeit with mixed success. The Australians arrived in England clear favourites to retain the Ashes but they were also a side in transition, lacking experience of playing under English conditions. Their strength was having a group of fast bowlers that the English tried to negate through producing pitches that slowed the ball down. Small companies have a similar advantage over larger more established companies, where home advantage comes in the form of operating in new economic models. Building a company from scratch enables you to challenge the business models and overhead structures adopted by more established companies, who will often find it hard to adjust to a new way. Netflix, Spotify, Amazon, Uber et al have all exploited the home advantage of the internet as their cultivated pitch to play the opposition on.

Adaptive leadership – the now retired Australian captain, Michael Clarke, was rightly lauded as having the ability to quickly adapt and innovate to drive results in cricket matches. To the contrary Alastair Cook, the English captain, was prior to this summer known for traits of resilience, determination and stubbornness but certainly not innovation. Yet over the course of the summer he realised that to succeed with a group of young and inexperienced players he needed to seek innovation and steer away from conservative leadership. To embrace the attitude towards risk of younger players and look to change games through more aggressive decision making. As Winston Churchill said “To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often”. A shift in strategy, or “pivot” as it has become known, is the preserve of the nimble and smaller company. Nokia started out as a paper mill, Twitter shared podcasts and Groupon raised funds for social good.

Sport provides lessons for business and vice versa, perhaps Clive Woodward’s time as a trainee salesman at Xerox is a tale for another day. In the meantime does anyone know where I learn to dance like these guys.

60 all out.