Ok, ok, so you do remember it all, don’t you? That Dhoni six that sealed the World Cup. Those stories that appeared soon after about team spirit and leadership. And the paeans of praise for a leader who could do no wrong. Ah, those were the days.
Suddenly, it seems to have all gone wrong. The Indian team has slipped in the world rankings, lost every international game on the England tour and the captain seems like a man besieged. But we can all learn a whole lot more from a summer of defeats than we can from years of success. Why does a winning team suddenly transform into a team of no-hopers? How does a leader suddenly go from hero to zero? How does the habit of winning make way for the habit of losing? And what can you do about it?
Here then are some lessons for businesses from the defeated Indian team. Pad up. And read on.
• Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing. When you have the momentum, keep it going. Nurture it, protect it. Winning teams win — every day, everywhere. During the cola wars in India, I remember how the Pepsi team would fight for every store, and every bottle, as if their life depended on it. Letting go of one outlet, one sale, could have signalled to the team that the company was not committed to winning. Think about that! The India team’s problems in England probably began long before they reached England. They began, in fact, in the West Indies. With just 161 runs to get in 40 overs for a win in the last test, the Indian team played out a draw. Worse, with just 86 runs to get off 90 balls, they opted to call off that match. The message was clear: The habit of winning was making way for another habit.
• When it ain’t broke, fix it. Winning teams look for weaknesses to improve upon while they are winning. The Indian team was never a great fielding side, but when the batting and bowling clicked, the fielding lapses got camouflaged. We won games. When the bowling began to falter and the batting came down a notch, the fielding lay exposed. Many organisations make this mistake too. When the going is good, they add costs. They add fat. And when the slowdown hits — as it inevitably must — they start looking to cut costs. Remember, cost cutting is not a strategy for bad times. It’s an imperative for all times. Just like good fielding.
• Take tough people calls. Hire well. And fire fast. Most teams recognise the need to hire great talent. But they are not quite as good at getting rid of talent that is past its ‘best before’ date. An old-timer overstays on the basis of the great work he’s done in an era gone by. And no one seems to bother that he is depriving a bright young star of a chance to make a difference. Think Harbhajan, think Ashwin.
• Even the best machines need regular shutdowns. Speaking to a Korean colleague, I was horrified to discover that despite working seven days a week, our manufacturing lines were producing far less than identical machines in Korea, which worked just six days a week. The secret? The Koreans had a mandatory shut down every Sunday. That allowed for preventive maintenance. And flaws got fixed. What’s true for machines is true for our cricketers. Too much cricket meant they were carrying injuries — and had no time to set it right. Need to prevent burnout. Of men and machines.
• Don’t allow a minor slip to become a major fall. In business, it is inevitable that you will make some mistakes, lose a few battles. But winning teams learn to fight all the way — and don’t allow the small gaps to become large chasms. When market shares are slipping — and the planned re-launch is six months away — it is extremely important to fight for every decimal point of share and not allow the drop to turn into a free fall. India did not just lose tests in England. They lost by big margins, in embarrassingly quick time. Big losses hurt big and make recovery just a bit harder.
• Don’t worry about stuff you can’t control. Winning teams make their own fortunes. They don’t allow the occasional slice of bad luck to be perceived as a calamity. Losing a toss, a player getting injured, bad umpiring decisions — all these can happen. As can a quality problem with the product, the loss of a star sales guy or a hike in excise duty. When the team isn’t winning, each of these can look like a big deal. It’s important to ensure that the team does not start seeing it as an omen of everything going wrong. Winning teams believe luck is on their side. Even when it isn’t.