By Border Badger
The Six Nations is over and done.
Scotland once again flattered to deceive as challengers and finished the tournament with a minor scandal as the ‘seditious six’ went out for late-night beers after the Italy game and incurred the wrath (apparently) of the Scottish management and, certainly, some of the Scottish paying public, when the team then struggled to keep the lid on what could easily have been a 50 point whipping by Ireland.
There’s an obvious question here: if we had beaten Ireland would anyone be talking about that incident? I suspect not, but I think the fact that it happened has shone a light on a potentially bigger problem in the Scottish setup.
I have a professional interest in organisational and team culture and have studied it to an extent. So it’s something I look to analyse in the way teams and organisations behave. Since my knowledge and background are based in a business, rather than sporting context, it’s worth clarifying a couple of terms.
The Team are the “producers”. Not just the guys on the pitch though: it’s the entire group of individuals who get the job done. The whole playing group. They’re the people with the skills and abilities to produce the wins that the “customer” (you and I) really want. It’s what we invest our time and money for.
The “Organisation” is much wider. The organisation includes the team but also means the management, media people, physios, S&C people, kit people, admin people who ensure the team get on the bus on time and the people who make sure that every player has studs in his boots and a well-fitted gum shield. It’s the old story of JFK asking a janitor what he was doing and the guy replying “I’m helping put a man on the moon”. That’s the organisation: Everything and everyone is important.
Organisational culture can be described as “the way we do things around here”. It’s a shared understanding, ethos and set of values that all within the organisation live by. A strong culture is one where everyone buys into these values of their own volition, not because they’ve been ‘told’ to do so or risk punishment if they transgress.
So what has this got to do with Scottish rugby?
For me, the concern is not that the players went out, nor even that they ‘disobeyed’ the coach to do so. My concern is that the culture in the Organisation is so poor that they felt content it was okay to do so. They were content that this would not be seen as important in the context of their Team, their Organisation or their stakeholders – us, the paying public.
Or worse. They didn’t care.
The strongest cultures are self-organising. In a strong culture, the people within the organisation ‘police’ themselves. They don’t need to be told. Everyone tacitly understands that this is “the way we do things around here” to succeed.
On the pitch, that culture is what drives you to keep getting up off the floor to make the next tackle. To hold the line and trust your teammates. To keep fighting even when you’re aching and fit to drop. Off the pitch, culture is what gets you up in the early hours to train, even when you haven’t been selected. It’s what makes you check that tiny bit of detail three times to make sure the organisational machine runs smoothly. It’s what makes you think “No. I won’t go out to a nightclub because that might affect performance or reflect badly on us.”
If you look at some of the great team cultures that we know in our sport, the best in class really stand out. The All Blacks are the gold standard but probably difficult to emulate. From what I can see, their culture is ingrained in the national psyche to the degree that, I suspect, the coaches don’t actually need to put much effort in on that front. Everyone wants to be an All Black. The backroom staff all want to be part of the All Blacks being successful. The values they work to have been ingrained since the days of PineTree Meads and his ilk and are passed down with the shirt.
I suspect that the culture in the Ireland national setup was built by Joe Schmidt. The senior players pass that culture to the incoming players year on year and it pervades their setup. The coaches since Schmidt have benefited from that, so they and their backroom team can concentrate on S&C, playing, tactics, boots and gum shields. I honestly don’t imagine any of that Irish team hitting the town the week before a big game.
For example, closer to home, think about the turnaround that Richard Cockerill made at Edinburgh. The culture at Edinburgh before he arrived was clearly toxic. Cockers changed that almost instantly though. He took no prisoners and created a strong, hard-nosed culture. Unfortunately, the skills you need to change a culture quickly are quite different from those you need to ensure it persists. Cockers methods, while powerful, were clearly unsustainable. Mike Blair, however, is now benefitting from a lot of the culture that Cockerill created, and can now concentrate on the playing tactics.
Where does that leave the Scotland national setup and can we compare ourselves to other national rugby cultures? I lived in Wales for almost a decade and was often stunned by how harsh they were about failures in the national setup. They simply didn’t accept failure in the National team. Mediocrity was not an option. I fully expect that Wayne Pivac won’t survive the Italy loss. Even if he doesn’t go immediately, I don’t think he’ll be the Welsh coach come the World Cup. The stakeholders, the paying public, simply won’t accept it.
So why should we?
Back to the party six. Most of them are in the senior leadership group and they decided to go out on the razz less than seven days before a major match, apparently in contravention of team protocols. Ignoring talk of rules, team protocols and ambiguity, I think one of the following is likely the case:
a) The organisational culture is actually okay with that.
b) The culture is so weak that they didn’t feel it was wrong (or not wrong enough).
c) The culture is toxic to the degree they either didn’t care or were in ‘open rebellion’ mode.
Point a) seems not to be the case as they’ve been ‘told off’ which leaves only b) or c) as possibilities.
Either of these is hugely troubling.
We can point to the fact that captain Stuart Hogg has a part to play here, and he does. However, he is there to support and embody the culture of the Organisation. If the culture in the Organisation is so poor that it has also lost the Team leader, the problem is fairly deep-rooted, and although Hoggy’s dissension is a symptom of the issue; for me, it is not the cause.
Talk of binning Hoggy as captain might paper over some cracks and may even allow him to show his club form again but, if the organisational culture isn’t right, it’s really a sticking plaster on a broken bone. So where is the fix? An expert on organisational culture, Edgar Schein, once wrote that “The only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture.” I agree with that statement and, if we accept that, then the problem sits firmly and squarely on Toony’s shoulders.
How does he turn it around?
It has to begin with getting the Teams’ leadership on-side. They’re the ones who will convince the rest of the group to stick with it when things aren’t going well. Who will persuade the players to get back up and get in the line when they’re aching and tired. And will put an arm around the shoulders of the guys who’re not selected to play.
Toony can worry all he likes about what they do on the pitch and have 500 variations for every play available, but if the whole organisation doesn’t buy into the culture we’ll always have the ‘beer-hound six’ moments and the ‘noble loser’ tag.
However, if Townsend has lost the leadership group to an irreparable extent and can’t create and manage a successful culture, then Scottish rugby desperately needs to find someone who can. It doesn’t matter how close we are to the World Cup, if we go into the tournament without a solid organisational culture that everyone buys into, then we will be ‘also-rans’ before the first ball is kicked.