How the Cynefin framework won Wales a Grand Slam

Alright, the headline might seem a little facetious, but I am still giddy over the Grand Slam win by the Welsh rugby team this weekend past. Besides, there is some evidence from the literature that my assertion has merit.  

The research source is this article by Eddie Butler in the Guardian newspaper.  Now, lest you think that I misrepresent Mr Butler as a scholar, he does carry relevant credentials. He played for the Welsh rugby team, captained them 8 times and also played for the British Lions touring team.  

I have written previously about the importance of acting to give stability in a chaotic situation and the subsequent need to move as quickly as possible from this transitionary state once stability has been achieved.

Butler records that the newly appointed Wales coach, Warren Gatland, arrived to find an organisation in chaos. 

“Gatland arrived in Wales in the opening weeks of 2008, when Wales were in a state of chaos, … and the changing room echoing to the murmurs of mutiny. The new coach imposed order and gave simple instructions and Wales responded with a second grand slam of the 2000s.”

The new coach inherited an organisation that was brimming with naïve talent but had a limited approach to solving the problem of winning a match. Their prescription for winning required them to play an expansive, fast flowing game, full of sparkling flair and gilded with romance—but were soon easily thwarted by gruff and sullen opposition who’d never been read fairy tales at bedtime.

Gatland has re-written the script. He has built a team that can star in fantasy or film-noir. 

He moved the team quickly from Chaos to Complex.  As Butler notes, Gatland set out semi-rigid boundaries ("The new coach imposed order and gave simple instructions" ) and then delegated some of tactical activities to the players, the agents most capable in shaping the emerging conditions.  After tinkering safely, he eventually settled upon a captain, Sam Warburton who has since:

“...transformed the changing room. The players govern themselves, with Gatland providing prompts now, rather than barking orders through his rottweiller, Shaun Edwards, as in 2008.”

However, though some academic case studies might claim cause-and-effect retrospectively, not all of the success has been planned. Some of the biggest improvements in organisational performance have arisen from a fortutious response to failure.  Most of the stars in the current squad have gained their place as a result of injuries to first team players.  Gatland, against his publicised preference, was forced to play talented but inexperienced players in high pressure matches.  The new players, matured in by the Rugby Union Academy system and schooled against the excesses of soccer stars, rose to the occasion and are now established.

Perhaps the biggest impact by the coach has been the broadening of the organisations problem-solving capability. In rugby parlance, this team can now 'win ugly.’ They can vary tactics on the fly, respond to new patterns of play as they emerge and, more importantly, shape the style of play for short periods of the game to their benefit when opportunities arise.

The real test will be the longevity of their success, but with the diversity of problem-solving playing style in place, and access to a deeper pool of (problem-solving) players, the outlook is exciting.