England’s new coach re-focuses on performance, not “culture”

Last week's press conference by England Rugby's new coach, Eddie Jones, give me a glimmer of hope of a healthy and long over-due refocusing on performance. This contrasts with the disastrous approach of the previous head coach, Stuart Lancaster, who spent huge amounts of effort on an ultimately fruitless mission to create "right culture". For non-rugby fans, under Lancaster's leadership England became the first team ever to crash out of a home World Cup at the pool stage. The team now stand in a lowly 8th position in the world rankings.

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Here's why I believe, and hope, that Jones' leadership will produce better results (Check back in 2019 to see if I'm right, and England make it to at least the Quarter Final of the World Cup, if not better!)

1. The unhealthy obsession with culture

Lancaster took over as head coach back in 2011, following England's exit at the quarter final stage of the last world cup (a result which now seems not too bad). And from the start, his focus was on culture and team identity. In particular, he thought it was necessary to restore pride in playing for England. Here are some of the initiatives he implemented to try and do this, as reported here:

  • Asking players'  parents to write to their sons to tell them what it meant to have them playing for England
  • Writing to a group of former England internationals and asking them to articulate what it meant to play for England

  • Conducting an educational evening in which the squad were talked through the history of English rugby. “It was a history lesson for us,” said Lancaster (who was former school teacher)

  • Displaying England rugby's values in the changing rooms (below left), and writing behind each player’s changing spot the names of those who had played in their position before, "So you get across that you are playing for those who have played previously in your position.”

  • "Re-connecting" with the home Twickenham crowd by making the team walk further from their team bus, so they walk amongst the crowds preparing for the match

  • Having a "tweet wall" with messages of support from fans, and the slogan "Hundreds before you. Thousands around you. Millions behind you" (bottom right)

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"So, what's wrong with all this?" you might ask. It assumes an overt, direct attempt to create a culture and sense of identity (stimulus) will result superior performance (response). This is something I quite often see in companies, who also spend time, effort and large amounts of money on trying to create the right culture. I suggest this whole approach is fundamentally flawed. In my experience, the stimulus and response work in the opposite direction. Successful organisations focus 100% on the attitudes and behaviours that will improve performance and help you win, and in doing so a culture emerges. 

England's rugby team arrived at the World Cup lacking a way to win. They didn't have the right skill levels, including in their traditional areas of strength (the so called "forward pack" of big, powerful giants who win the ball for the fancy "backs" to run and score). They didn't have superior fitness levels to given them an edge. Lancaster's team selection was in the view of most experts flawed when it mattered most. And when you are out-muscled and out-thought by the opposition, no amount of rah-rah, motivational speeches, letter, tweets and slogans will help you.

2. Focus on a winning playing model

So, what is the approach of new coach Eddie Jones? He promises to have a very different approach, and one I believe will be more successful, based on the limited evidence of his first press conference. Here is what he has been talking about:

  • Identifying what will be the strengths of the team, where we can have a competitive edge
  • Making sure we improve these strengths
  • Selecting the right players (to deliver against these strengths)
  • Learning how to adapt this style to different conditions

Notice not a single mention of "culture", "identity" or "purpose". Rather, Jones' seems focused on developing a winning "playing model", as I posted on here, writing about how Jones coached Japan to the biggest upset in rugby world cup history, beating South Africa. This approach is very much in line with the principle of focusing on and amplifying your strengths, as I posted on here. The analogy in business is creating a winning business model.

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3. Performance builds pride

I do of course believe that organisational culture is important. I just believe the way you create such a culture is by focusing on the behaviours, attitudes and strategies needed to improve performance. Over time, if these attitudes and behaviours are repeated enough times by enough people including its leaders, they become the company culture. The importance of prioritising performance and how to win is shown in research by Interbrand that looks at the drivers of organisational pride. This pride is important, as it is correlated with better employee motivation, retention and recommendation. But guess what the biggest driver of pride is. Great leaders? Good pay? Having a positive impact on society?


The biggest driver of organisational pride is "products and services seen as the best". In other words, what makes people proud is simply producing great stuff, whether it be a beer or banking services. 

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In conclusion, if you want to have an obsession in your organisation, base it on performance, not culture and identity. Banish the buzzwords and motivational masturbation of the Lancaster era, and focus on creating a winning playing model, and the skills, behaviours and attitudes to deliver this.