England Cricket Member Insights

Member Insights: Why you have to be open-minded when trying to address a challenge

February 8, 2023

In this week’s Member Insight article, Richard Brinkman, looks into the dangers of narrow thinking and the value and importance of opening the mind to as many possibilities as you can when trying to address a challenge or opportunity, or achieve a defined goal.

It is an oft-quoted cliché that sport is a results-driven business. On the field, and in the boardroom, the soundbites we frequently hear are all about focus, definition of roles, clear direction, clarity of purpose, precise execution, established targets and goals etc.

This is as it should be if we are chasing a singular outcome such as the correct result or achieving a goal. The important thing, however, is to be aware that this singular and, by necessity, narrow approach demands closed, or focussed, thinking. The mental blinkers have been attached in order to solely concentrate on the one thing we want to happen.

This is all well and good, focussed or closed thinking is the right thing to do if we are seeking clarity, wanting to reach a decision, or looking to assess or measure an issue. It is the most efficient and direct way to chase a particular result.

However, if we are looking to address a problem, or find a solution, it is crucial that we open the mind to all possibilities; engage the imagination to consider alternatives and come up with as broad a selection of new ideas to assess. After all, as the old saying goes, if we keep doing the same things, we will keep getting the same results.

And this is the essential issue for the sports industry – far too often it is stuck in Einstein’s insanity loop of doing the same things (or, more accurately, a slightly different version of the same things) and expecting different results. A loop that is driven by an expertise and over-reliance on closed thinking and an unwillingness (or inability) to open the mind and engage the imagination to other possibilities.

This is an entirely natural situation. Being “open-minded” feels like comparatively hard work. A highly focussed mental approach, in contrast, feels very tangible and thorough. It drives precision and quickly makes us feel better about our thinking because it seems safe, allows us to revisit the comfort of the known, and leads rapidly to tangible actions and “doing something” – or being seen to do something. We feel like we are being busy and decisive.

Due to closed thinking being quick, familiar and comfortable it is habit-forming. Collective habits become a culture. Long-running and widespread cultures become institutions. The sports industry has institutionalised closed and focussed thinking – at the expense of open, possibility based thinking. To deliver the best results you need both – each at the appropriate time – not just one mode of approach.

Solutions require both approaches, in the correct order, in order to have any chance of achieving successful results.

As an example, take Ashley Giles’ words on his sacking as England and Wales Cricket MD just 12 months ago following the debacle of the England men’s Ashes defeat in Australia.

“Unless we look at more systemic change, a collective responsibility, and collective solutions, we can’t make whatever changes we want. You can change me, we can change the head coach and change the captain, but we’re only setting up future leaders for failure. That’s all we do. It’s only pushing it down the road.”

This is a very traditional and conventional – dare one say, institutionalised – response that can actually be seen in many businesses : we have an issue (we cannot win any Test matches – 1 win in previous 17) so whilst I am happy to take responsibility (because I am being forced to) it must be the system or process that delivers the players that is at fault since I know what I am doing and work hard.

The ECB’s solution in this instance : do a thorough review (like we did last time we were beaten heavily in Australia only this time give it a different name – Strauss report), consult more widely (talk to people who have won a lot from other sports) and then suggest radical changes to things tangentially linked to the issue, continue to promote and invest in the one thing that will definitely not help with the issue and cross your fingers that performances in test matches improve in the future. The insanity loop in action!

Unfortunately for Ashley Giles, who was undoubtedly a hard-working and well-meaning administrator (as well as a good man and very fine cricketer), and the Strauss report, history has not been kind to them.

Since last January England have won the T20 World Cup (they now hold both white-ball World Cups) and 9 out of 10 Test matches. This is about as strong a return from an England cricket team as has ever been seen.

What has changed – structure of the ‘system’/season, process of selection and coaching, the players themselves, equipment, locations of matches, incentives? None of the above. None of the traditional tangible reasons that closed and focussed thinking would associate with creating a winning team.

The only major thing that has changed is the mindset and thinking (and therefore actions) of the players – the very same players (virtually man-for-man) that could not win a game 12 months ago.

They have resisted the temptation to revert back to the methods that have worked in the past and try to work harder to implement and perform them better. This would be the focussed, blinkered and traditional way of approaching the problem. The wrong approach for addressing a problem. Led by a new captain and coach the England men’s cricket team have opened their mind to a new way of playing.

They have tried to imagine what interests and excites them and will therefore get the best out of themselves. An approach that recognises, and embraces, the possibility of losing but is willing to live with this possibility because of the excitement and rewards that the increased likelihood of winning delivers. White ball, red ball, home, away, Asia, Australia, Trent Bridge the positive mindset and willingness to be flexible and open to different possibilities at any stage of any match and tour is consistent.

One of the often unintended benefits of this kind of more open and imaginative thinking is that it far more readily and rapidly elicits buy-in from those involved. As Simon Sinek famously commented “Dr King gave the “I have a Dream” speech not the “I have a plan” speech. Dreams change the course of history”. Or put another way – people remember how you made them feel long after they have forgotten what you said. Emotional buy-in trumps rational understanding when it comes to driving positive action.

One has only to witness the RFU’s ham-fisted attempt to limit concussion in rugby through reframing the tackle laws to see how closed, focussed, and seemingly decisive, thinking can play out. They are trying to do the right thing but appear to have almost totally alienated the entire playing-base (including the professionals who will not be effected – yet) through a very binary and closed response to a highly nuanced issue that will require a high-degree of buy-in across multiple stakeholders to have any chance of success.

I am sure that had they been seen to open their mind to many possibilities other than just the obvious waist-only tackle proposal, and used their imaginations around who else they could possibly have involved in trying to arrive at solutions, the RFU would be moving forward to towards solutions to this important issue, rather than fighting fires and trying to reassert some credibility.

This scenario, in a similar way to Tom Harrison’s ridiculous branding of an entire sport (cricket) as “institutionally racist”, demonstrates it is often more important to sport’s leaders to be seen to be doing something (anything!) quickly than it is to do the right thing in a measured way. Knee-jerk reactions demand clarity and defined actions – closed thinking.

Not that head injuries in Rugby is a topic that has sprung upon the sport overnight – it has been bubbling up for years – but that is another story for another day.

I would implore those in the sports industry to be aware of how they are thinking and not instantly default to closed and focussed “blinkered” thinking as they look to move forward. Particularly when addressing problems or challenges (and there are plenty of those!) let’s be aware that it is crucial to open our minds to all, and any, possibilities and engage our imaginations rather than default to different versions of what we have previously known. Once possibilities have been prioritised we can then look to involve others, gain valuable further insight, and then focus our minds as we clarify definitive actions that will help sport move forward.

England Cricket Member Insights