Four days before they were due to fly to Australia for a three-month tour in 2013, and when they were desperate for a few precious days at home with their families, and to preserve their strength for the rigours to come, the England cricket squad were dispatched to Stoke on an SAS-style team-building mission.
But this wasn’t any ordinary team-building exercise. They had to sit in a classroom figuring out how to use walkie-talkies (which, sadly, lacked batteries). They were given instructions in the art of covert surveillance. They were also given a mission (disappointingly, the tape didn’t self-destruct) to stop a guy from committing a crime.
At 5am one morning, Stuart Broad and Ben Stokes found themselves in some back alley staking out a terraced house. Sadly, they didn’t know the phonetic alphabet, so they couldn’t get the info across to base camp to explain what they were seeing, although they didn’t seem altogether sure what they were looking out for anyway. “Team Blackhawk down alpha bravo potato onion samosa five niner golf course mike, Team Hotel, over,” Broad called into his still faltering walkie-talkie.
The next day, they were sent to eavesdrop on a chap in a pub on the edge of Stoke. Please join me in picturing the scene: Stokes, Boyd Rankin, Matt Prior, Alastair Cook and Kevin Pietersen sitting in an old-fashioned boozer, surrounded by regulars wondering if they have just landed in a hallucinogenic dream, leaning surreptitiously towards one of the tables, trying to overhear what some pot-bellied chap is saying to his mate — but without drawing any suspicion to themselves.
Outside, Jonathan Trott, melting into the background like Orson Welles under the shadow of the doorway in The Third Man, was keeping an eye on the suspect’s possible getaway. Sadly, he missed the entire thing: he found himself signing autographs for the small crowd that had materialised when they realised that the England team had landed in suburban Stoke, behaving mysteriously, and talking in a curious dialect involving words like “Oscar”, “Tango” and “Foxtrot”.
Now, I don’t want to sound mean-spirited. I love imaginative coaches who try new ideas. There are few experiences I enjoy more than embedding myself in world-class organisations like Team Sky, or the Mercedes Formula One team, or, to move beyond sport, the James Dyson innovation lab over in Malmesbury, Wiltshire, to see how these institutions operate, share knowledge, spark creativity and, most importantly of all, drive performance.
But for pity’s sake. What is it with these expensive, time-consuming and extravagantly pointless team-building exercises that have, somehow, crept into the sporting landscape? Why does the England cricket squad, a group of skilled sportsmen, have to spend precious days before an important overseas tour, when they could be with loved ones, or honing their skills, or washing their hair, attempting to overhear the scripted conversation of a cod actor while being gawked at by a bunch of locals at the Duke’s Head in Trent Vale?
The problem, I think, is two-fold. The first is the increasing budgets in high-level sport. Elite teams are awash with money, and so the coaches feel that they have to spend it. What better way than to hire a group of ex-soldiers to create an exciting mission? It certainly sounds sexy: “England cricketers taught teamwork by crack SAS brigade!” Perhaps it might also reflect well on the coach if the team do well, and in hindsight one can point to this piece of visionary, out-of-the-box thinking.
But it is here that I like to recall a long conversation I had with Sir Dave Brailsford this year just after Team Sky had won the Tour de France for the third time in four years. The 51-year-old was already figuring out how to discover new marginal gains; to drive an already world-class operation further into the uplands of excellence. “We are looking at making the skin suits more aerodynamic,” he said. “We are doing work on diet and hydration. We are thinking in a blue-sky way about training.”
This was the key phrase, however: “When you are trying to innovate, you have to bring it back to performance. There has to be a constant analysis of how a change in the training programme or an attempt to shift the culture, is going to impact upon the bottom line. It is very easy for coaches to have wonderful-sounding ideas, but you can get lost in your own imagination. It starts to steal bandwidth from what really matters.”
Almost every innovation pioneered by Team Sky has been rigorously tested to develop proof of concept. Other innovations (such as the “hunger index” to improve motivation and the “winning behaviours app” to create a more cohesive culture) have their foundations in randomised control trials, the hallmark of valid social science. Brailsford is not an intellectual, but he is a magpie: always looking for the next edge.
Over at Dyson, perhaps the most innovative organisation in the UK, the same spirit applies. Blue-sky thinking has a razor-sharp edge. There is none of the finger in the air, hope-it-works bravado that might involve their top scientists proclaiming “Team Blackhawk down alpha bravo potato onion samosa five niner golf course mike, Team Hotel, over” into a clapped out walkie-talkie. But there might be a cultural shift programme based on a growth mindset, or resilience research, or the insights on creative collaboration pioneered by Charlan Nemeth, the American professor of psychology.
Ed Smith, who knows a thing or two about sport and, for that matter, the human mind, has written about the growth industry of team-building: “It is improving technique and skill that lifts morale, not morale that enhances skill. The problem is that improving the skill of top players is exceptionally difficult. So the easy option — often little more than a displacement activity — is focusing on ‘team-building’, herding the whole squad on to a go-karting track or making them swim across a waterfall in their underpants. If the group is already strong, it may create some amusing shared memories. If the squad isn’t together, it may even make things worse.”
Broad put it more pithily when he delivered his ultimate verdict on the Stoke SAS mission, which, as it happens, preceded a humiliating 5-0 Ashes whitewash: “Was it an indicator the wheels were falling off before the tour even began? I don’t know. But it was a bit of a disaster.”