The England Rugby Union team have transformed from boring, underachievers to thrilling all-rounders who have just recorded the joint highest number of consecutive wins in the history of top class international rugby. Eddie Jones is the coach behind this transformation.  What might his preferred approach to training teach us about how to thrive in uncertainty?

Like most elite team sports (and business) Rugby Union has experienced an explosion in available data. GPS tracking of players in games and training and near constant, often real-time access to player biometrics, sleep patterns and nutrition have allowed minute analysis of what needs to be tweaked in order to gain marginal gains through ever more precise, directive management. The result? Boring, predictable games and players that have lost the ability to make decisions and be creative in the moment (a phenomenon discussed here).

The England Rugby Union team used to epitomise this data-led ‘efficient automaton’. They woefully underperformed in the most recent World Cup – which they hosted. As a result a new coach, Eddie Jones, was brought in and England went on immediately to win the joint highest number of consecutive international victories in the history of the game. They aren’t just winning, they’re winning in thrilling style. Their play is now characterised by its range of tactics, adaptability and speed of decision making  – especially so at crunch times towards the ends of games where things become unravelled, less certain.

The key to this transformation is in understanding the nature of the sport. Whilst predictable, readily managed environments like the velodrome and swimming pool yield to the power of data-driven approaches like the aggregation of marginal gains, the more unpredictable environment of team sport resists the ‘perfect answer’ – using data is a necessary but not sufficient approach to success. Some elite coaches, like Eddie Jones and José Mourinho, have therefore adopted a method called Tactical Periodisation… with remarkable success. Rather than break everything down into discrete elements – fitness, tactics, technique – all three are drilled together in circumstances designed to be more intense and challenging than players face even in top class international games.

Not only are the England team winning and playing better, surprisingly (to an extent) they are fitter too. As Jones explained in a recent article:

“Every day we train a specific parameter of the game. We have one day where we have a physical session and do more contacts than we would do in a game. Then we have a fast day where we try to train for at least 60% of the session above game speed. We don’t do any extra fitness – it’s all done within those training sessions. We’ve improved our fitness enormously.”

Just like in more controlled sporting environments, there are many aspects of business that will benefit from marginal gains: the application of the ever growing amounts of data constantly to tweak and improve. There are, though, increasing areas and types of business where – just like in team sport – winning means being able to thrive in unpredictability. Of course the first step is to be able to  recognise the difference between the two scenarios in order to assess which you’re faced with. Where unpredictability is at play, though, what lessons might Tactical Periodisation have to teach us about the skillset and mindset to thrive?

As an example, let’s consider Customer Experience (CX in the jargon).  When business was more about interrogating the data and extrapolating to an optimum, then knowing the relatively obvious ‘what’ was upsetting customers was enough. Now I think we need consciously to develop the means by which we can explore the territory of ‘why’ they are unhappy.

Exploring ‘why’ might have helped Kodak, for example, concentrate less on incremental improvements to film technology, products and services and more on the changes in the way people were creating and sharing images. To understand, in time to do something about it, why film would soon become not just relatively lacking in features but…irrelevant (at least to 99.9999% of the market).

The key here is accepting that ‘why’ is slippery, intangible, fungible. There is never one immutable ‘answer’ and so, therefore, the goal must be a thought process. Box’s Law tells us that all models are wrong, but some are useful. Jab Bloom tweeted that the lesson he took from that was: 

“It doesn’t matter what is true so much as how we think.”

If the quest is more about ‘how to think’ than ‘what is true’, might the deep value within data about customers be revealed through a similar approach to Tactical Periodisation? Imagine if we use these stats and stories regularly to create intense, challenging drills for customer-facing teams by using innovative scenario and role-playing techniques like Forum Theatre and Virtual Reality. What unexpected insight and value might emerge if we observe and analyse this process with as much rigour as we would a focus group? At the same time, might the teams’ performance back at the customer coal-face improve?

There’s only one way to find out.

The general point is this: in our paradoxical era of big data and bigger uncertainty the key challenge is less about sourcing or generating data and more about how to explore its latent depths more creatively – more effectively – for game changing meaning.