Musings
January 17, 2023

What the Winningest Team in Sports Can Teach Us About Collective Intelligence

The New Zealand All Blacks are the winningest team in the world. Not only the most successful rugby team, but the best in all sports. Since their first international test in 1903, the All Blacks have won more than 77% of their matches. That’s unparalleled.  

Before you dismiss this as another hackneyed sports metaphor, there’s a lot to be learned from the All Blacks, even if you’ve never touched a rugby ball. For 120 years of play, they have managed to maintain a staggering level of performance.

They are clearly phenomenal athletes who bring their best to every match. But the magic of the All Blacks has nothing to do with rugby and everything to do with how they work better together than any other team.

For more than a century, the All Blacks have relentlessly and consistently focused on three things. First, they live by an unorthodox but powerful set of principles. Second, they embrace and leverage diversity. And third, they practice rituals that deepen their connection. Not only to each other but also to their rich culture.

These three things have enabled the All Blacks to develop an extraordinary collective intelligence, an ability to harness the strength of their relationships and the wisdom of their experiences to make them better together. Just as IQ measures the ability of individuals to perform certain tasks, collective intelligence – or CQ – predicts a team’s ability to solve problems together. When a team has collective intelligence, its output is exponentially greater than the sum of all the individuals’ abilities.  

And the good news is, collective intelligence is something any team, in any industry, can cultivate. Here are three ways to do that, courtesy of the All Blacks.

  1. Use principles to elevate your team. The All Blacks live, work and play by 15 principles that define their “team-first” ethos. These are not words on a laminated card they receive on their first day on the pitch. These are colorful mantras that animate their commitment to each other and the team. They are actionable (not abstract) short and memorable, ranging from “Sweep the Sheds” to “Be a Good Ancestor.”

    These principles reinforce the team’s emphasis on distributed leadership, mentorship, shared effort, and collective purpose. The All Blacks are as focused on legacy as they are on winning. Several of their principles remind them that they play as much for the future of the team as for the present.

    The lesson for all of us: no player is bigger than the team. But what it means to be on the team cannot be taken for granted. It’s not enough to describe the culture you want to have, you must write it down, refer to it and be inspired by it. The principles that drive your culture will elevate your team when your colleagues own them, live them and hold each other to their collective promise.  
  1. Honor diversity to unlock greatness. When rugby arrived in New Zealand in the 1870s, it was a game of privilege, popular in British boarding schools. Quickly the sport engaged the Maori, the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand, who brought their culture to the game. Adding immigrants from other Pacific islands, the All Blacks have been broadly diverse for nearly a century.

    They preserved their diversity at a cost: over the years, many of their players were banned from play in other countries. But they stayed the course. Diversity has enabled the principles and the traditions that deepen their legacy. Through Maori culture, the All Blacks have built a team that outlasts its players - the present is informed by the past and the promise of the future.

    The lesson of the All Blacks’ diversity is best expressed by Bill Osborne, the retired President of New Zealand Rugby. “Diversity is about diversity of thinking—it is that contest of ideas that matters.” This contest of ideas means that the All Blacks can innovate by tapping into a broad set of diverse individual perspectives. Only by unlocking the diverse experiences and expertise among your colleagues can you bring the best of your organization to tackling a new challenge. Diversity matters not only because it’s the right thing to do but also because it builds better, more innovative teams.  
  1. Embrace rituals to deepen connection. Their principles inspire and their diversity defines who they are. But rituals empower the All Blacks to embody their craft and their commitment - to each other and the team. From ceremonially distributing jerseys to assigning specific seats on the team bus to dispense wisdom, the team models their principles and values through their rituals.

    Their most famous ritual is the haka, a celebratory Maori war dance the All Blacks perform before every match. The haka unites the team and embodies a shared spirit. Former All Blacks captain, Kieran Read, says “the haka - it’s connecting to ourselves. Connecting to our past and the people who have come before us.” But the haka also aligns the team right before they go out on the field, priming them to move together, pass the ball and win.

    You might not want to incorporate a celebratory war dance, but the science on ritual and synchrony is compelling. Research demonstrates that we learn better together, and that workplace rituals (lunch together, joint centering exercises, etc.) deepen meaning, even in the face of personal resistance. Rituals deepen connection, and connection is where the magic and wisdom live on every team.  

These three things add up to a powerful social contract - the commitment and intention of each member to make sacrifices to prioritize the team. The All Blacks know the strength of the wolf is the pack. No one is ever left behind because the collective is what matters most. And that’s how the All Blacks have been able to build an extraordinary level of collective intelligence.

The good news for the rest of us mere mortals is that it does not have to take 120 years to build collective intelligence. But it does take intention, commitment and practice - off the field as well as on. And it’s collective, not selective. Only by making the space to invite all voices, will you unearth the true wisdom that already resides in your ranks and exponentially improve your win rate.

Image Credit:
Wikimedia Commons

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