Risk versus reward. Sport like business is a high-risk winner takes all game. It’s not easy to judge whether the risk will pay off.
“You win the game and you’re a hero. You make the wrong call and you’re a zero”
This was the post-match judgement of Wales Rugby Union Coach, Warren Gatland, on England’s decision to go for the glory of a match-winning try rather than a score-levelling penalty kick in the dying minutes of the classic World Cup encounter at Twickenham on 26th September 2015.
So, was it the right decision to take a risk to try to win the game?
And what does it tell us about decision making in other high-pressure situations such as business?
20:20 hindsight is, of course, a luxury for people not involved in the heat and intensity of a high-stakes moment.
Coolly they can dissect the events from a distance in space and time. Then, weigh up the odds of success of the different options.
Owen Farrell had kicked 5 penalties already plus a conversion and a drop goal. He was clearly in fine kicking form. Yes, the angle was acute. But the chances are that he would have put the ball between the posts to bring the scores to 28-28 and set up a thrilling finale.
On the other hand, England’s line-out had been less than impressive throughout the entire match. What’s more, Wales had easily defended previous attempts at a driving maul from the line-out.
So, there we have it. England’s captain made the wrong decision. He imperiled the host’s passage to the knock-out stages of the tournament. In so doing, he heaped pressure on Stuart Lancaster and his beleaguered management team.
Chris Robshaw’s decision to try to win the game rather than level it resulted in the team losing the game. Ultimately, it led to England’s early exit from the World Cup and Stuart Lancaster’s removal as Head Coach.
But hang on a minute. Is it really that simple? A bad judgement call.
Sport, like business, is about taking calculated risks
So, let’s transport ourselves back to the 78th minute of that game.
England had just conceded a penalty which the immaculate Dan Biggar had converted from distance to push Wales into the lead for the first time in the match. But now England roared on by a passionate home crowd were marauding deep in the Welsh half and were awarded a penalty of their own.
Often criticised for playing safe, lacking adventure and coming up just short in big games, the England players sensed the possibility of an all-out victory and the opportunity to inflict a mortal blow on a wounded enemy.
As Japan had proved against South Africa a week earlier and as Wales themselves had shown in coming back from adversity against England in this match, fortune often favours the brave in sport, as it does in business.
So, rather than criticising the decision to go for glory as so many commentators did post-match, perhaps we should look at the real lessons from that epic encounter?
- When you are performing well, you must take your chances
- When you are on the back foot, you must maintain your discipline
- If you are going for a high-risk power play, you had better make sure that you execute it perfectly
18 months on from that ignominious defeat, England went on a world-record equally winning streak of 18 games.
So perhaps, the final lesson is that even the biggest blunder or darkest defeat can be the prelude to an exciting new adventure?
Learning the lessons of past failure can lay the foundation for future success.
In business as in sport, resilience separates the winners from the losers. As Nelson Mandela famously said:
“Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.”
Interested in what business can learn from sport?
You might like to read this article on how can you apply 5 insights on winning to your business as illustrated by the 19/20 Premier League winners, Liverpool FC
Or alternatively, please check out this article on continuous improvement that tells the sporting and business story of how Exeter Chiefs rose from the 4th tier of English rugby to become Champions of England and Champions of Europe.