Euros 2020: What all of us can learn from Gareth Southgate

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Gareth SouthgateImage source, Reuters

Part of Gareth Southgate's success could be his willingness to turn to football outsiders to help prepare his England team. One of these advisers, former Olympian Matthew Syed, argues there's a lot the rest of the world can learn about this approach.

If there is one universal truth about human psychology, it is that we love being surrounded by people who think just like us. The Ancient Greeks called it "homophily" which means "love of the same". It was Plato who warned "birds of a feather flock together".

In some ways, this is the story of the England football set-up for the last three decades, the squad run by a true "footballing man" advised by other "footballing men". The idea is that if you get knowledgeable football chaps in a room, you will maximise the amount of knowledge - and thereby find a way to win matches.

This is why when Sir Clive Woodward - a world-class rugby coach - was appointed as an assistant coach at Southampton FC a few years ago, there was uproar. "But he's a rugby person", football insiders said in horror.

"If Harry Redknapp - the coach of Southampton at the time - needs advice, what is wrong with, say, Tony Pulis or David Pleat (both English based football coaches)? They are experts on football!"

The curious thing about these arguments is that they are, on the surface, persuasive. It is true that Pulis knows more about football than Woodward. But do you see the problem? Redknapp already knows what Pulis knows. They were each socialised into the assumptions of English football: a way of setting up tactically, diet, recovery, you name it. They are, if you like, intellectual "clones".

If you put Redknapp, Pulis and Pleat in a room - all good footballing men - you would have high individual knowledge, but you would also have collective uniformity. You would have an echo chamber. They would reflect each other's assumptions back to each other. It would be comfortable, chummy and consensual. It would also be monolithic and non-creative.

This tendency is a problem that extends beyond English football. When the CIA was founded in 1947, it hired brilliant analysts, but they also happened to look similar - white, middle-class, Anglo Saxon, Protestant males.

The recruiters, doubtless subconsciously, were influenced by homophily. As the academics Milo Jones and Philippe Silberzahn put it: "The first consistent attribute of the CIA's identity from 1947 to 2001 is homogeneity in terms of race, sex, ethnicity and class background."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Recruiting people who think the same way inhibits creativity

The same is true of many of the big tech firms such as Google which, a decade or so ago, wondered why innovation had dried up, despite hiring so many brilliant software engineers.

They then realised that they were hiring people from similar universities who had learned under similar professors and had absorbed a similar range of concepts, heuristics and models. They were "clones" of each other. Only when they started looking beyond their usual horizons, reaching out to different universities and social networks, did things change.

Gareth Southgate, the England head coach, has followed a different approach, opening himself up to new ideas from the outset.

One source of these ideas is the FA Technical Advisory Board, an eclectic group that has been advising on performance in regular meetings since 2016.

Members (all unpaid volunteers) include Sir Dave Brailsford, a cycling coach, Colonel Lucy Giles, a college commander at the Sandhurst Military Academy, the Olympic rower Dame Kath Grainger, Manoj Badale, a tech entrepreneur, the rugby coach Stuart Lancaster and David Sheepshanks, mastermind behind the St George's Park national football centre.

At first, football insiders were horrified by this group, with negative articles appearing in the British press. We are not "footballing men". But this is why the group is capable of offering fresh insights on preparation, diet, data, mental fortitude and more. This is sometimes called "divergent" thinking to contrast it with the "convergence" of echo chambers.

"I like listening to people who know things that I don't," Southgate told me. "That's how you learn."

Image caption,
Colonel Lucy Giles is among those giving Southgate performance advice

Southgate has also assembled a diverse group of coaches in Graeme Jones, Chris Powell and Martyn Margetson - individuals who have deep but very different experiences of the game. And, just as importantly, he's keen to listen to them: the moment England score, the celebration is curtailed so that Southgate can gain the input of Steve Holland, his assistant.

These diverse coaches are not rebels in the sense of seeking to disrupt the team. Rather, they are rebels in the sense of injecting fresh thinking which helps everyone perform better.

The tragedy is that people in echo chambers often don't even realise they are trapped. This is a point made by the novelist David Foster Wallace, who tells a story that starts in a fish tank. "There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish, who nods at them and says 'Morning, boys. How's the water?' And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then one of them looks at the other and goes, 'What the hell is water?'"

Wallace's point is that when we are surrounded by people who think the same way, we can overlook the obvious. Classic examples include Blockbuster, which missed the opportunities of the internet despite dominating the movie rental business, and Kodak, which was so fixated on print photography that it never took the opportunities afforded by digital.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
His coaching staff was hand-picked for their diverse skills and backgrounds

The CIA missed an entire series of threats due to its clone-like recruits. A few more rebels could have changed everything. It wasn't until after the 9-11 attack that the CIA started to broaden its intake.

Of course, diversity shouldn't be pursued frivolously. If Brailsford, Giles, Badale, Grainger et al were advising not on football performance but how to design the Large Hadron Collider, they would be ineffectual. Introducing outsiders for the sake of it rarely works. The key is to bring people together whose perspectives are both relevant to the problem, and which are also different from each other. This maximises both "depth" and "range" of knowledge - leading to "collective intelligence".

The England football team haven't won the Euros, and there's a long way to go. But the power of diversity is beyond dispute, central to the strategies of many of the most cutting-edge institutions.

Echo chambers may be comfortable but they are inherently self-limiting. In the post-pandemic age, with the world changing faster than ever, it is diversity that unlocks the key to success.

Matthew Syed is author of Rebel Ideas: the Power of Diverse Thinking and represented Great Britain in table tennis at two Olympic Games

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