Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Lesson Of Kevin Pietersen

Sport, that which is played by more than one person, has always been defined in terms of the team. The team has always mattered, and all that has mattered to the team has been winning.

English cricket, apart from the occasional excellent international team, has also thrown up notable county teams. Yorkshire in the 1960s was such a team, one that was littered with opinionated and domineering characters - Brian Close, Ray Illingworth, Fred Trueman, Geoffrey Boycott - some of whom had a visceral dislike of others. In spite of whatever conflicts there may have been in the Yorkshire dressing-room, the team kept on winning.

In management and business circles of the 1980s and 1990s, when gurus and consultants were casting around for the next topic from which they could earn a more than decent crust, the "team" surfaced as one such topic. There were seminal contributions on the subject of the team in organisations, and they drew heavily on examples from the sporting world. That Yorkshire team was, as far I am aware, never referred to, but one English sports team which was highlighted was the Liverpool FC of Shankly, Paisley and Fagan.

The gurus took what they saw as the attributes of great sports teams and moulded them to create models of how teams in organisations should work. Simultaneous with this almost anecdotal method was the more scientific furtherance of what Katharine Cook Briggs and her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers had published in 1962. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator was the foundation for an explosion in psychometrics and in examining team roles.

The Kevin Pietersen affair is baffling in different ways. One of them is the reference to the need to inculcate team values and ethics as an apparent justification for his sacking. The conclusion one is left to draw is that Pietersen was either insubordinate, too outspoken or simply too different to be tolerated any longer. Yet, there is an irony to be found in the language of the England and Wales Cricket Board. Team values, team ethics; these are the words of its chief executive, Paul Downton, and they are the terminology of the management guru. The team, its organisation and its roles, has gone full circle. What was taken from sport has been grabbed back from the business organisation, and in the process, something appears to have gone wrong.

Fundamentally what seems to have gone wrong is an inability to manage the team and team members by instinct rather than by some rubric set out in a manual. Shankly and his successors had no recourse to a manual. They managed as they thought right, and they were right more often than not. The team was paramount, but within the team were individuals: all different, all needing a way of handling. Brian Close was known to have been a tough captain, but he was also known to have been able to deal with different personalities. One way was to threaten to or to actually punch Geoffrey Boycott.

To what extent the England cricket team's management by manual has been influenced by psychometrics I couldn't possibly say, but we know that psychometrics are used because Stuart Broad has revealed that they are. If so, what might the insight into Kevin Pietersen have been? His style of play is that of the creator and the innovator, the member of the team who thinks outside the box. Yet, he himself has described himself as an introvert. Myers-Briggs and the tests it spawned would suggest that the innovator and the introvert are, to no small extent, mutually exclusive. Pietersen, in other words, wouldn't conform to an expected type.

And there is of course no reason why he should conform to type or indeed why anyone should. Far from being an assistance to team management, the guru approach can be a hindrance if what is sought is a team comprising individuals who think the same. At its most extreme, this leads to groupthink in which the desire for cohesiveness is more important than individual freedom of expression and which can be the consequence of team failures and faults in leaders.

Any group which has pretensions to being a "team" and so having cohesiveness and a team ethic can fall foul of a groupthink straitjacket and end up losing valuable members in the process. It happens in politics. It has happened in the Balearics. The cabinet "team" of President Bauzá did away with its language non-conformist Rafael Bosch. Trust was needed, just as trust has been cited with regard to Pietersen. Failures of the "team" and of the leader, those regarding the opposition to the green taxes for example, demanded a scapegoat. Pep Aguiló was the obvious choice, just as Pietersen was the obvious scapegoat. The replacements are team clones, conformist to the core. The team ethic is secured. But at what cost? Discipline is one thing, thinking is quite another.

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