Learning Innovation from the All Blacks

New Zealanders grow up with a love of all-things All Black. We love watching our national rugby team, analysing their past games, predicting the new comers, and providing arm-chair coaching to the television.

I was born in 1986 and have lived through an evolution of the All Blacks. In the 1980s (and earlier, so I’m told) - there were two types of rugby players. Forwards and backs.



A typical rugby forward of this era was built like a solid rump steak. Often short-necked, always with a protective layer of fat, these were the men who would slog away in the middle of the rugby field, running slowly into impact zones time and time again. They would never break, would always jog, and could down several beers in record time post match.

The back, on the other hand, was lithe and limber - often young - with a full mane of hair. They would be quick and nimble, waiting out in the wings to receive the ball and sprint around their equally small opponent. They would finish a match with a clean uniform, and having made few tackles.

The build and type of these players was grounded in their function. A forward’s job was to tackle, make small gains in the middle of the field, and wear the opponent down. This took a big, slow, solid man.

The back’s role, however, was to score tries in the corner of the field. This required speed, an ability to quickly accelerate, and deft footwork to out-fox the defender. 

Two functions, to get two jobs done. The ball would pass between them - but by-and-large - they stuck to their roles and to their zones of the field.

During the 2000s era, we noticed a change in how the All Blacks played rugby. The first-five would suddenly be tackling the loose forwards, or entering a ruck at speed. Hookers would be spotted out on the wing. Flankers would work next to wingers in clearing out the opposition.

The All Blacks began to play in pods, with forwards and backs forming small units across the playing surface. Recognising that rugby required a unique combination of skills at any given time - they organised themselves around the required processes, rather than their own functions.



Needing to clear the ball quickly? There was a pod formation for that.

Wanting to launch a quick counter-attack? Another pod formation.

The function approach was fantastic - allowing for new insights into how rugby could be played, and new possibilities for beating the competition. They adapted to this model - and were re-soundly beaten - culminating in a depressing 46-20 loss to South Africa, on August 15th 2004.

The following morning, All Blacks management found players lying in various states of drunkenness around the hotel and garden - their punishment for the loss from a player-organised ‘court session’. 

On the flight home - one of the All Black’s coaches said to the head coach, “I don't want to be involved with the All Blacks if it is going to be like this.”

They had the process right - but their capabilities were still struggling.

Over the following years, the All Blacks studied high-performing teams around the world, developed their own language and mantras, introduced new cultural habits and teams, and measured their impact. In short - they recognised that process was not enough. Capabilities eat process for breakfast.

Since then - and ignoring a heartbreaking moment at the 2007 Rugby World Cup that is best left unmentioned - the All Blacks have won two Rugby World Cups, 15 Bledisloe Cups, 9 Rugby Championships - and received the prestigious Laureus Award in 2015, for the best team in the world. 



What can we learn from this?

Process Beats Function

Businesses were traditionally organised around their functions - with business units mirroring the functions that they housed. Sales, Research and Development, Engineering, Accounting - each function clearly named, and the employees working together across their responsibility.

This breeds efficiency - but a relentless focus on function also crushes innovation.

I was talking with an organisation that developed products for at-home consumers. After a little bit of questioning, we mapped out their current innovation cycle.

Marketing talks to customers to generate insights. These insights get passed to designers, who create initial plans, which are then given to engineers to make a reality. 

Function, function, function.

Understandably, the engineers had a range of ideas for how they could solve customer needs - but they never got a chance to validate these concepts, as they were two steps removed from their end-user.

At a simple ideation session, these engineers showed the value they provided in generating new solutions - but due to the function-focus of the organisation, this was the first time they had been able to contribute in this way.

Does your organisation organise around functions also? Remember, each customer is normally involved with many different functions of your business - so insights and improvements come from these functions understanding the processes and working together to generate new value.

This does not have to mean open-offices or grand-restructures - but instead can mean time each work working in cross-functional teams - from the beginning to the end of the project.

Capability Beats Process

Stephen Shapiro’s fantastic primer 24/7 Innovation: A Blueprint for Surviving and Thriving in an Age of Change explains how truly innovative organisations move from innovation as a process to be followed - to a capability to be nurtured.

An innovative capability comprises of the high-performing combination of

1. Strategy and Customers.

Some companies only use innovation in crisis times - reacting to their competitors. These are never the high-fliers. Truly innovative organisation see innovation as the key currency within their organisations.

The All Blacks model this with their constant learning - travelling to visit business leaders and excellent teams, and reading about great influencers - even when they’re at the top of their game.

2. People.

The All Blacks have a few key mantras, including - “No dickheads.” If someone has the skills to be an All Black, but doesn’t have the requisite character to wear the jersey - they will be passed by. The culture is too important to risk.

A business requires a people-centric innovation culture that sees innovation as the responsibility of all. Are people accountable for innovation at your business? Are there key innovation leaders who can teach and guide projects?

3. Processes.

Businesses tend to see innovation as a random task - more influenced by fate and luck than any clear process. I’ve lost count of the amount of businesses who have “Innovation” as a core-value - but no process or plan for how they innovate.

The All Black’s generate clear game-planes, which can adapt as the situations change. Does your organisation have a plan for how you will innovate and adapt as your market changes?

4. Technology.

I was chatting with the CEO of a company - one that literally had painted “Innovation” on their wall. We talked about innovation - and I asked how they capture ideas.

He stared at me blankly.

How did they enable collaboration between employees and suppliers? How did they make decisions for new projects?

It was all driven by gut decisions, and pieces of paper.

Technology is not the end goal of innovation, but is a tool that enables high-capabilities. From idea banks, to open innovation, to simple project-management tools - sharpening the technology capabilities of an organisation will raise their innovation capabilities.

The All Blacks have raised their technology game - with the players kitted out in GPS-fitted gear, designed to measure the impact of changes to the game plan. They borrow from baseball’s sabermetrics to measure tackle effectiveness and other key stats - all allowing for tweaks and improvements to their ongoing development.

5. Measures and Performances.

One of the things I love about New Zealand Rugby is their annual report.

Each year, the NZRU publishes their Scorecard - the measurement of their ability to achieve the goals they planned to do. This is not hidden amongst spin - but is plainly scored, so that everyone can understand it.

At a glance, you can see the areas they have performed fantastically in - and where they need to improve.

Measurements wrap around business capabilities - to help you see how you’re performing in each area. Unfortunately - almost every organisation I work with has no clear measurements to assess their capabilities - such as their innovative culture, leadership of innovation, innovation process effectiveness. When they cannot measure it - they cannot manage it.

The All Blacks did not achieve their success by trying harder to do what they’d always done. They changed and sought outside help to transform their capabilities - becoming a world-class organisation that innovates in sport like no-other team. 

Why not emulate them? Instead of merely working harder - seek to change and focus on improving your innovation capabilities. 

Don’t know where to start? Let’s talk. Get in touch - and we can begin chatting about how to understand and develop your business’s innovation capabilities.