I recently attended an event organised by the Royal Society of Arts of which I am a Life Fellow. The subject was how to make better decisions? How do you identify and nurture people with better potential? How to turn a bunch of talented individuals into a cohesive team? Where does decision-making science end and judgement begin? The speaker was Ed Smith a former chief selector of the England men’s cricket team who has developed a unique framework for identifying and maximising talent, spotting team weaknesses, and communicating ideas that lead to stronger leadership, clear judgments and ultimately, improved performance.
He shared insights from the very top flights of professional sport, arts and business, and argued that putting the human back into decision making is essential to navigating a fast changing and increasingly data reliant world, whatever the field.
His opening line was that if you're not being criticised, you're not doing your job. As the cricket selector he felt that it was important to first of all pick a squad, and then a team of 11 rather than just picking the best individuals so sometimes he would be criticised for leaving a player out who might have a high batting average or low bowling average but his reasons would be that he didn't feel that individual would be able to fit into the team in the same way and it is a team sport. In other words his response was that his role was to serve the team not the individual and this was not always easy. For example when he was picking the World Cup squad for 2019 which they went on to win he had to get the squad down to just 15 individuals and that involved making 17 difficult phone calls to those who were missing out on a life changing opportunity.
He didn't just take examples from cricket. He clearly follows other sports. He observed that Cristiano Ronaldo was undoubtedly one of the finest players in world football in recent years. Nevertheless, on his move to Manchester United he had a negative effect on the team and since his departure the team has improved substantially. He made a further point about the individual versus the team. In order to develop the depth of the squad this inevitably involved changing the team from time to time but not so that it would be a revolving door.
In questions he was asked to what degree did one’s body played a role in decision making. He recognised the concept as being something observed by George Soros who suffered from back pain which could undoubtedly affect his decisions. Ed is certain that the excessive use of Zoom and mobile phones is leading to bad decision making as body language is not present in these modes of communication. This is something with which I very much agree as I feel that while I am happy to use Zoom particularly keeping in touch with my family, some of whom live abroad, but for decision making I found it has been very poor.
Another questioner asked him about Ronald Reagan’s philosophy of delegating decisions. Ed was sure that that did not mean that President Reagan delegated all of his decisions but that he had to delegate some because otherwise everything seems to stop with the president, and he could no longer be effective in the role.
For Ed meetings should be conversations. He has attended too many meetings where not much was discussed in the right way in the meeting itself but then after the meeting quite good conversations took place but of course they were not leading to decisions. He would insist the conversations took place in the meeting itself.
He was asked to what degree there is an analogy between business and sport. For Ed there's no question that the issue of teamwork was important in both areas, but sport is much more straight forward in the sense that results are easy to recognise with clear and agreed forms of scoring and with a system of umpiring or refereeing to manage conflict and disagreement. In essence the question of how to make better decisions is one of process and then arrival at a good place.