Culture5 min read

In Conversation: Sir Clive Woodward and Charles Mindenhall on why agility is critical to accelerate out of the crisis

We recently brought together World Cup-winning Coach, Sir Clive Woodward, and Charles Mindenhall, Co-founder of Blenheim Chalcot, the UK’s leading digital venture builder, in a webinar where they reflected on their experiences of leading teams through turbulent times, building businesses that have thrived even in recession eras, and their insights curated from their networks of CEO peers.

We’re publishing parts of the discussion as part of a mini-series so you can access their insights in bitesize bursts of actionable learning. You can head back to Part 1 here if you’d like to start at the beginning.

Part 3: Agility is critical to accelerating your business out of the crisis

Charles Mindenhall:

You talked about, obviously, some of your business career, but also some of the businesses that you now advise and coach and mentor and so on, some very big businesses and very senior teams in those businesses. How have you seen them responding to this crisis? What are some of the observations you’d make of their response, particularly the ones who are responding well, perhaps?

Sir Clive Woodward:

Yeah. I think the ones that are responding well, and I won’t name them, I think, but there are some big, big companies … I think this word agile is used a lot in business, Charles, about companies, teams, being agile, but what does that mean? To me, agile is just being … You can move quickly, is what it says. It’s being agile on your feet, it’s being agile in the business.

What we’ve seen, very, very straightforward, the companies who are leading on technology, or putting technology right at the head … You know, I’ve always said whoever wins in IT tends to win. The people who are ahead in technology, and just sort of think of them, they are the ones who can move very, very quickly and be agile, right down to when the lockdown started, or everyone just starts going from home, it wasn’t a big deal. We can handle this, we can do this, we can be agile, we can change the way we’re working, these conference calls.

I’ve jotted a few things down about the definition of agility. It’s being ahead in technology. It’s understanding how you can communicate, how you collaborate still, that life doesn’t shut down. It’s your communication. It’s also understanding your staff who are working at home now may be very, very different. The pressures of not going to work, the pressures of having children, and all this sort of stuff. They’re what I call the agile companies. I think they’ve done it really, really well.

The biggest thing I’ve seen, without question, is the companies that have really got an engaged workforce will get through this well and the companies who really talk to their workers and the people on the shop floor. I read a book. I’ve got this out because I knew you’d ask some sort of question about that. I’ve been reading this book over the break. I don’t read that many sportsbooks, but I read a lot of business books. But I’ve been reading this book, and it was recommended to me by someone from Hive Learning. It’s by Niall Ferguson. It’s ‘The Square and the Tower’.

This, again, is such a concept that is really close to me. All we’re saying about the square and the tower is that, throughout history, not just recently but throughout history, a lot of the power has come from the tower, the big tower. All the knowledge comes down. What he thinks is that successful companies, they still have that, obviously, but the real knowledge comes from the town square. It comes upwards from the people on the shop floor, the people in the factories, the people at the sharp end of the business. And it’s understanding that it’s a two-way thing.

I think we really saw this with what happened with the coronavirus, where this came in, a lot was coming from the governments and the power at the top and the health authorities, but the real knowledge was down here. The real knowledge was with the doctors, the nurses, the ambulance drivers. They weren’t being heard. This wasn’t coming up, because it just wasn’t in place. That is a classic situation where people put this down, but the lessons were being learned on a daily basis and was there a mechanism in place where knowledge can go both ways.

I wrote a quote down from this guy, Niall Ferguson. It’s a great quote. “Throughout history, hierarchies housed in the high towers have claimed to rule, but the real power has resided in the networks in the town square below. It’s the networks that innovate, and it’s through networks that revolutionary ideas can contagiously spread.”

Before I read this book or had that down, that was my view. That’s what I think I see companies do, where they really work with every single person in their organisations, and it’s not just coming top-down and you’ll do what I say. It’s a really two-way thing.

So that’s what I’ve seen the big organisations have done really, really well in terms of how they communicate with their team, their staff. That’s what I prided myself on as a rugby coach, that I was there to lead, I was there to make decisions, but I wanted to listen as well. I wanted to listen to what everyone else is thinking. Then I can make a call about what’s going on. That’s what I see successful companies are doing at the moment.

Hannah Flaherty:

We’re getting lots of questions about culture and how to foster a culture of creativity, how to get leaders to behave in a more vulnerable way, and about our processes.

I guess one part of that really is thinking about how you practically get that kind of engagement and knowledge sharing from the bottom up – The Tower and the Square theory that it’s definitely insight that comes from leaders that will drive organisational change, but actually the people who enact that and create that culture of agility are often on the town square below.

I wonder if either of you have any practical thoughts on how you could bring that to life in the organisation?

Sir Clive Woodward:

I use the thing called teamship. I’ll just quickly explain. Teamship is The Tower and the Square, that quote. What teamship is this: I looked to do this running my own small leasing company, only 10 people, where there’s no hierarchy. We’re just 10 people, leasing and finance brokers, and we’re all trying to get on. What teamship is basically this: If you’re going to put in any new thoughts, new behaviours, new anything, you want your team to discuss it first. These are the people in the square. These are the people on the shop floor. You get them to discuss it first, and then report back to you, the leader.

We could use a simple one, like timekeeping, for example. I’m neurotic about timekeeping. I want my team to discuss what time means, not just starting on time, finishing on time, and all this sort of stuff. So, you get them to talk about it, and then you as the leader can go yes or no. If you agree with what they say, you can become what I call a teamship rule. If you don’t agree, you bat it back and ask them to re-discuss it.

So you’re not giving them any power or authority. But what I’ve found, it just creates this incredible culture, because what you’re doing is encouraging … just call it the town square, the shop floor. You’re encouraging them … You’re showing you respect their views, which is so, so important. But also, most importantly, you’re encouraging them to put new thoughts and new ideas.

When you really get this going, you’ll suddenly start to discuss and table things you’ve never talked about before, from diversity and inclusion to race and the problems we’re seeing in today’s society with what’s going on over in America.

So, it’s all sorts of areas, and suddenly you get everyone discussing it, coming up with teamship rules, and you create this incredibly strong culture where everyone feels they’ve got a part to play and a role to play, and you can’t say, “Well, I wasn’t even asked about this.” It’s called teamship, and it’s the only way I know how to actually create a strong culture, is by involving everybody within your team, knowing you can still go yes or no once they come up with their thoughts and ideas.

Charles Mindenhall:

I totally agree, Clive. There’s this big danger that we see in our organisations. It’s the HiPPO, right? The highest opinion of the highest-paid person in the room, and everyone looks to that person and listens to their opinion, but they’re often the person who has the least context, the least data, and the least knowledge about what’s actually happening.

So in meetings, we have quite structured meetings where obviously you set your agenda and you set your objectives, but actually what’s really important is asking the people who don’t speak what they would like to contribute to the discussion. Often, they might be a bit scared, feel a bit insecure about their own opinion, have an opinion but don’t feel able to express it, because perhaps they’re a bit more junior or what have you. So I think you as the chair of the meeting or the leader in the meeting needs to be quiet, shut up, and let those people have their say, encourage them to speak. Not say, “Do you want to contribute?” but actually talk to them and say, “Now it’s your turn, have your say. What do you actually think?”

I often find that’s a great way to get data and information and opinion. If you want to talk about cognitive diversity, get that cognitive diversity, get that opinion, and the information that you wouldn’t have otherwise shared in that environment. That can lead, often leads, to a different decision being made or a different action being taken as a result of getting it.

The question is, how do you do that at scale, right? If you’re not just in a physical meeting with people, how do you do it in a digital, remote, distributed way? That’s one of the challenges, of course, we’ve all been working on with Hive for the last few years, which is trying to do that.

Key takeaway:

The pandemic has forced organisations and leaders to think about taking different approaches to old problems, often assumed to be “the way things are” because old solutions, in many cases, are no longer relevant.

Those organisations that have made the most progress are those that have taken a bottom-up approach to learning and engaging the workforce. We’ve seen that innovation rarely comes from one leader thinking through a problem alone. Innovation happens most often and most quickly when different people with diverse perspectives come together to share ideas and work through problems together – each building on the other’s thinking and learning a lot in the process.

Leaders with agile mindsets that seek out diverse opinions, new ways of thinking and empower their team to work free of legacy shackles, try new things, and pay it forward are the ones that will be able to accelerate their businesses out of the crisis and into the new world of work.

If you’d like to listen to the full recording, you can do so here.

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