Former England cricketer Andrew Strauss talks risk-taking and handling friction in pressure situations
18 February 2022 • 4 min read
“Risk taking, at the right time, needs to be encouraged. The ability to make calculated decisions, particularly under pressure, can be the difference between winning and losing”
This was the advice offered by Sir Andrew Strauss during his AND Digital Insight keynote. He was talking about this in relation to the way he has approached his role as director of England cricket, but this mindset has value beyond the world of elite sport. In fact, this growth mindset - where boundaries are there to be pushed (pun intended) - is something that permeates throughout AND.
This isn’t, however, an easy thing to master. It isn’t something that comes naturally to everyone. “Many players who reach the pinnacle of sport do so because they are deemed coachable,” Strauss said. “They follow instructions and get the job done. Whilst this is valuable, many do not have the right mindset to make critical decisions under pressure. For some this was very natural, but for others it was about creating the right environment to encourage players to think quickly under pressure.”
Ultimately, then, it’s about creating the right culture and conditions to enable this mindset and way of thinking about your work - whether it’s test cricket or otherwise. When you are working towards a goal, there will always be variables beyond your control that can derail even the most intricate plans. That can be frustrating, but the former England captain explained that he worked hard to instil in his team a mindset in which change and unpredictability was to be embraced. Rather than becoming disillusioned by setbacks it was vital to build resilience so individuals and teams could adapt.
What’s the point in planning?
Does that mean there’s no point in planning? No, not at all. Strauss instead argued that planning was necessary - vital, even - but if you fail to acknowledge there are variables beyond your control those plans can easily break apart when some pressure is applied. Plans should help you make better decisions in a chaotic environment; they shouldn’t simply comfort you that everything is always under control.
Sir Andrew gave an example: The climax of the 2019 World Cup, in which England faced off against New Zealand in a ‘super over.’ This was genuinely a singular moment in One Day International cricket - it would have been impossible for the England team to have prepared for that specific situation. No one could have predicted it. But this didn’t mean they weren’t prepared - in fact, their plans ensured that in that most unlikely of scenarios they were ready to perform and do precisely what they needed to do.
Strength and conditioning, mental resilience - all the work on those facets that are seemingly extraneous to cricket were vital in helping the team get over the line. Mindset mattered just as much as innovative strokeplay.
“”Humans are always subject to unpredictable events. It’s human nature to try and rationalise them. By rationalising these events, we say to ourselves if we did things differently, they wouldn’t happen again - but is that always true?” Again, turning this philosophy to the business world, we have more data at our fingertips than ever before which on the one hand gives us more information to make better informed decisions. Ironically, this mass of data means there is now much more to analyse and interpret. Finding the correct - or most effective path through it is becoming increasingly complex.
One of the key strategies that underpinned the direction he gave to his team was taken from Prussian general Carl Von Clausewitz treatise On War. What Strauss found particularly compelling in von Clausewitz thinking was his focus on the concept of friction - those small, unpredictable details or occurences that prevents an army from executing their plans.
For Strauss, the key to tackling - or preparing for - friction - was training that focused more on scenarios and situations than pure technique. What mattered was getting the team to think seriously about what they would do in a given situation. This approach was driven by a desire to make the team better decision makers when they were on the pitch. In short, he wanted to build leadership across the team to ensure a level of confidence and resilience even in those moments when the friction really could be felt.
How can we apply this to the business domain? There are a couple of things that are easy to implement: first, recruit and cultivate people that can not only lead but also bring a critical perspective to success and failure. Second, ensure that you have mechanisms and processes in place to ensure that when things don’t go as planned, they can be discussed and analysed in a way that offers a better way forward for the future.
Thinking beyond well-laid plans
The lessons offered by Sir Andrew Strauss at the event have a huge range of applications. Ultimately, what really matters is this: empower people to build their resilience and decision making skills and you’ll have a team that is ready for the unpredictable, and for moments of friction. Yes planning matters, but it’s only by thinking beyond well-laid plans that we can successfully take the risks needed to unlock even greater levels of success.