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The world’s greatest sports team and modern digital businesses intersect at ParadigmShift

By: Nigel Dalton

Published: October 8, 2021

This week was the start of the executive online forum, ParadigmShift, hosted by Thoughtworks. It was great to have two members of the coaching team of the undisputed greatest of all time sports team (check out the data)—Simon Curran and Gilbert Enoka—at the opening keynote. I’m biased of course, being a kiwi, but the data is hard to argue around the team performance of the All Blacks. And as Simon noted, they maintain this performance on the road, not only in a homeground stadium, supported by their loyal army of raving fans.

There were many resonating threads across Gilbert and Simon’s remarks and the Thoughtworks world. We have passions for similar fields of research and organizational performance - though ours are less focused on winning World Cups, and more likely to help build thriving, modern, digital businesses.

The intersections of our worlds shouldn’t surprise me—Thoughtworks’ special advisor, Dr. Anita Sands is well acquainted with Simon and Gilbert’s work, not the least from her time spent in New Zealand. 

The key intersections of the All Blacks and Thoughtworks’ modern digital business concepts for me are:

1. Curiosity

The power of curiosity to dig you out of a ‘fight or flight’ mode can be a matter of life or death, as documented by Anita and another kiwi collaborator Dr. Alia Bojalova, in their talk about resilience, curiosity and belonging in this podcast; including a remarkable story from a NZ military hero about using curiosity to save lives.

2. Belonging

As a performance factor: diversity, inclusion (two factors we have heard a lot about in recent years), and then belonging. I was first introduced to this concept by Anita at the last ParadigmShift; a powerful conclusion from her research is that a sense of belonging is most strongly correlated to outcomes. And it turns out the opposite of belonging is ‘fitting in,’ which takes some much emotional and cognitive load, it rarely leads to performing.

3. Resilience

‘Bouncebackability’, as another famous sports coach defined it (Crystal Palace soccer coach Ian Dowie in the 2003-4 UK season). I loved that Gilbert cleared up that you can’t own resilience, but you can exhibit it, and train the muscles that make you more fit at it. Everyone has their down days and recovery is necessary—the mechanism for reset is key to practice. This is something we practice at Thoughtworks. In my experience too many business leaders still have the ‘failure is not an option’ mindset, but it’s highly risky for people to just hide failure.

4. Leaders as amplifiers

Matt Church wrote extensively about this concept in 2014, and from his book Amplifier came the concept of leaders worth following; work worth doing; and a culture worth contributing to. The power of a good leader to amplify change is significant (as Google’s Project Oxygen has reiterated again recently), and this is the focus of Thoughtworks’ Digital Transformation and Operations (DTO) service line—supporting leaders to amplify the need for change and progress. 

The unique All Black elements that I enjoyed and will reflect upon in the projects and research I am working on at Thoughtworks, were Gilbert’s performance triangle (navigating a balance of mindset, skillset and structure); identifying a development gap to enable growth; and the stack ranking of belonging, environment, values and vision into a pyramid or ladder—always start with belonging!

Gilbert and Simon’s words around sustaining high performance were my last takeaway—high performers don’t need rules, they need purpose. The purpose of the All Blacks is to always leave the jersey you wear (whatever position in the team, psychologist included), better than when you arrived. That’s a mantra we should all adopt.

Since Project Oxygen detailed the 10 key characteristics of the most successful leaders at Google, the number one characteristic has always been “Is a Great Coach.” How wonderful to have some of the greatest open ParadigmShift for us.

Follow-up materials


by James Kerr (2013)

This is the story of the All Blacks, turning their way around after the late 1990s downturn in form, transforming from a mercurial rugby team to the winningest of all time.

It’s famous for its story of how the Captain sweeps the sheds at the end of practice, and Gilbert Enoka is a big part of that story.


by Matt Church (2014, latest edition 2020)

You can read more about this concept at mattchurch.com and even download a free PDF of his book.

Resilience, curiosity and belonging: The drivers of successful change

In a world fraught with uncertainty, many leaders struggle to drive ambitious change agendas within their organizations. In the first of a four-part series takeover, Anita Sands speaks to Alia Bojilova, to explore how creating a culture of belonging, resilience and curiosity can help overcome the fear of transformation. If you are a business or tech leader, leading your teams through change, this is the podcast for you.

Project Oxygen

The power of a good leader