24 May 2018

Cultural shifts: How science impacts change

Daniel Gallan (@danielgallan)

In science there are no wrong answers, right? Wrong! With the help of Gareth Walton, a performance specialist with global consultancy EXOS, CONQA unpacks the first step in dealing with the unambiguous world of sports science and the ambiguous variable of culture.

All great teams, including this Champions League winning Barcelona side, rely on innovation. Without a well working culture, however, innovation is impossible. 

All great teams, including this Champions League winning Barcelona side, rely on innovation. Without a well working culture, however, innovation is impossible. 

Stop for a second and pick a team that has created a dynasty. It doesn’t matter which sport you choose or from which era. Think of a team that conquered all before them, that swept aside the competition in a furious wave of unrelenting success and was driven by dynamic individuals that have become synonymous with the great side they represented.

Did you pick the great Barcelona outfit between 2008 and 2012? Perhaps you chose the Australian men’s cricket team at the start of the millennium or this current generation of New Zealand All Blacks that has shown no sign of relinquishing their 10 year hold on world rugby.

You may have considered Michael Jordon’s Chicago Bulls, Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers or Babe Ruth’s New York Yankees. You could just as easily have elected this generation’s Jamaican sprint team, the British cycling team or the US swimming team. No matter, they all have one thing in common: a winning culture.

‘Culture’ is a catchy word that can be underlined as a possible solution to any problem. Your team is struggling to meet expected standards? Maybe the culture needs an overhaul. Not seeing eye to eye with a colleague or employer? Take a look at the culture of the organisation. Your opponents keep getting the better of you? What’s the difference between their culture and yours?

As abstract as the concept may appear, there is a reason why managers, coaches and mental skills gurus highlight its significance. A team comprised of individuals pulling in the same direction has a much greater chance of reaching its goals than a team working against itself. All these great athletic dynasties understood this and operated in a symbiotic environment.

But what of the cold, impartial world of science and data analytics? Can an immaterial variable such as ‘culture’ impact this black and white realm where there is no room for abstract thought and where an answer is either right or wrong? According to Gareth Walton, a consultant for the human performance company EXOS that supports over twelve thousand athletes across a range of sports around the world, when it comes to sports science, culture is where it all begins.

“It might seem counter intuitive but the first thing a sports scientist should do when assisting a team is to understand the pre-existing culture within the organisation,” Walton tell CONQA. “There is a reason why things aren’t working and so often it comes down to how people feel about the work, how they feel about the people in the team, how they feel about their place within the team and how they feel about the people in charge. That’s culture and before I get down to the science, I need to understand what environment I’m working with.”

Walton has made a name for himself by aiding struggling teams by implementing new strategies in the sports science department and helping create synergy between the analysts, coaches and players. As a consequence of his outsider’s perspective, Walton is able to identify what is working and what is holding back progress.

“The fish is often the last to see the water,” Walton muses. “When a team flirts with relegation for five or six years there is a reason for that. It’s not just because the players aren’t good or the coach isn’t up to scratch. By coming in from the outside I can take a macro view of problems within the organisation that those close to the ground can’t necessarily see.”

Walton uses this vantage point to assess what needs to change. It could be the way data is collected or in the relationship between a strong-willed, old school coach and his tech savvy science team. Whatever the case, before stepping in to make changes, Walton advises a cautionary start to proceedings.

He stresses the importance of highlighting what is working and to offer genuine praise where applicable. By beginning the process on a positive note, the criticisms that are to follow can be met by a more responsive audience.

“One of the biggest challenges in my field is being viewed as the enemy of the organisation you’re helping,” Walton explains. “Egos play a role in any industry and getting that buy-in is so important. Without it, creating positive change becomes a much more challenging endeavour.”

Once a rapport has been established between the outside consultant and the decision makers within the organisation, the difficult stage of the process can begin. With finite resources to work with (even in the largest organisations) Walton is always conscious of the tug he feels to get to work as quickly as possible and dive head first in to the problem. Again, he urges caution.

“When confronted with a particular challenge, say, a disparity between the data collected and the implementation of strategies on the field, one might be tempted to tackle the problem straight away. This doesn’t always work. Start small, get the shirt and tie off and go watch how the team warms up. You’re looking for pockets of opportunity where changes can be made so you can demonstrate value.”

These “pockets of opportunity” can come in a variety of forms and are all interlinked under the encompassing umbrella that is the culture of an organisation. Lengthy and unproductive staff meetings, unnecessary red tape in work emails, a broken coffee machine; it could be the smallest stone that derails an organisation’s rhythm. When assessing the strengths and weaknesses of a sports science department in a Premier League team, for example, Walton advises that no stone is left unturned.

With this understanding, a consultant can finally get down to business. One final hurdle remains in their way: the person in charge.

Head coaches, team leaders, CEOS; these are people who have dedicated their lives to a single purpose and have spent countless hours fretting over big picture decisions. Naturally these individuals are driven by an innate desire to success but can often be blinded by their steadfast belief in their own abilities. This challenge is the most difficult to navigate.

“On many occasions I have been confronted by a stubborn manager or leader who struggles to buy-in to the change I am trying to affect,” Walton says. “I remind myself not to be discouraged by this. I always try to understand their perspective and bring them in to whatever I am doing. I have to respect that this is their organisation and I am an outsider. They have more skin in the game so of course they’re tentative to outsider influence. However, if I have stuck to my plan, change is possible.”

That plan involves a simple formula that can be applicable to any industry. Start with positive affirmation and highlight what is already working within the organisation. Once that has been established, start small. Identify a seemingly minor variable that could be easily improved and suggest a way in which to do so. Once you have established credibility, use that to leverage buy-in from the key figures within the organisation. Once all the above has been ticked off, it is now time to start making some real change within the struggling team.   

“This may seem like a long journey to take and it may not makes sense for the pragmatic sports scientist, but rushing in to things will hinder the process before it has begun,” Walton says. “Too often I’ve seen consultants alienate a coach by wanting to make things happen too quickly or they lose the respect of the sports scientists who are already trying their best. Patience is vital even when confronted with time and resource constraints.”

The margins of success grow smaller every day. Whether it is in elite sport or the cut throat corporate world, the organisations that pay close attention to the minor details are the ones that get ahead.

This has fostered an industry of external consultants who are brought in to provide that extra 1% for competitive organisations. Understanding the existing cultures of those organisations and how the minor details can have major consequences, an astute consultant can implement meaningful change, even in the impartial world of science.