Winning in Complex Environments: Learning from Leicester City

  • Matthew Baker

You may not know but the English Premier League was recently won by a complete outsider team called Leicester (L-E-S-T-E-R) City football club.

Prior to the season they were 5000 to 1 odds. To provide perspective, Elvis was put at 2000 to 1 to be found alive in 2016.

So how did a relative unknown team win one of the grandest prizes in soccer?

If you look at traditional measures it was not their superior passing or possession of the football. In contrast, the Leicester team that played during the season remained relatively consistent but it appears they were also more effective. Simply put, when they had the football they were more likely to score with it (not many goals but one more than their competition) and keep the other team from scoring when they didn’t have possession. That’s a simple formula but this still begs the question – how did this team of relative unknowns pull of this huge upset? It might be easy to win a single game but the football season requires playing 38 matches, meaning this was not a mere fluke.

Recent research by Google provides some suggestions on the factors that make for successful teams. They identified five dynamics that are important to any team operating successfully. It turns out that who is on the team matters less than the how the team members interact, structure their work and view their work in the team. The following list is drawn from “The five keys to a successful Google team.”

Recent work at USAID has focused on the importance of using a framework called Collaborating, Learning and Adapting. One of the challenges of doing this is working in a potentially resource constrained environment, but the lesson from Leicester City is having money is not always needed in order for teams to collaborate effectively and succeed together; Leicester City’s team cost a relative fraction of its closest competitors. The fact that the team was so consistent through the season likely provided them room to cultivate one of the dynamics that the Google team discovered was the most important factor: psychological safety. The more team members feel psychologically secure, the more likely they will more effective, creative and focused on including diverse perspectives in their work.

What does this mean for democracy and governance programs? Recent focus in the development community has focused on managing complexity through new ways such as adaptive management. Much of the complexity that democracy and governance programming tackles involves problems that can be described as socially complicated. These are problems where the level of agreement on the solution is relatively low – there is no widely accepted “best practice” to replicate. Often our job at IRI is to provide tools, skills and knowledge that empower local partners work toward a solution with us. In order for us to do our job effectively we often need to navigate relationships, find common ground, help resolve differences and facilitate consensus-building. To do this, we draw on our real, long-standing and trust-based relationships with our local partners. The takeaway? The key ingredient to an effective, winning teams is also integral to effective, adaptive programs in the field.

Relationships matter, but perhaps more importantly, the types and quality of those relationships matter. Although we may not acknowledge it, development organizations form new “teams” whenever we work with our local partners. The same dynamics that likely make for successful teams within organizations also likely matter for making these relationships successful and resilient when you are assisting other organizations. Often these relationships are relegated as mere “inputs” in a program, but often they are integral to effective programming. In designing and implementing programs, ensuring we have the necessary relationships has always been a key focus of IRI. Through this we have ensured our programs are not just collaborative, but that this collaboration is based on a team dynamic that paves the way for effective learning and adaptation.


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