Gnomes, Grasshoppers and Squash

Culture is a funny thing, isn’t it?

Ask the British what they feel about gnomes and their opinions will centre on garden ornaments and Swiss bankers. Ask them what they feel about grasshoppers and their answers will probably relate either to insects or, for individuals of a certain age, to the TV adventures of a Shaolin monk travelling through the American Old West.

garden gnomes 150x150 Gnomes, Grasshoppers and SquashOn the other hand, put the ‘gnome’ question to the citizens of Zürich and I’m willing to bet that the bankers – although not the garden ornaments – will again emerge as a key topic of conversation. This because of the appearance, in the Britain of the 1960s, of the term ‘Gnomes of Zürich’, used by the government of the day to describe Swiss bankers in their ‘secretive’ role as currency speculators against the British pound. The term became established – and has remained – in the English language largely due to the British love of ornamental ‘garden gnomes’ which originated in Germany in the 19th century and become popular in Britain in the 1930s. It also became popular amongst Swiss bankers, and many of their compatriots, as a badge of honour.

But I’m also willing to bet that the ‘grasshopper’ question put to the same citizens of Zürich will, apart from insect-related themes, stimulate responses which relate, indirectly perhaps, to the game of squash.

The Grasshopper Club of Zürich, commonly referred to simply as GC, GCZ, or Grasshoppers, is a multi-sports club whose oldest and best known membership is that of its football team. The club was founded in 1886 by Tom E. Griffith, an English student, and added a squash section in the 1970s.

In 1979, the first Grasshopper Cup competition was held, starting as an invitational tournament but soon developing to become an official World Squash Federation and then PSA World Tour event. In the 1980s and 90s the tournament was at its peak, its winners including Jahangir Khan, Jansher Khan, Rodney Martin and Chris Dittmar. After a break of just over a decade, 2012 saw the re-birth of the Cup which has since continued to grow in stature. Unlike gnomes, of course.

And so why, I hear you ask, would the citizens of Zürich fail to associate the ‘gnome’ question with garden ornaments? Well, the ornaments known in Britain as ‘garden gnomes’ are usually referred to in European languages as ‘garden dwarfs’ from the German Gartenzwerge. I suppose that ‘Dwarves of Zürich’ just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

That’s culture for you.

Sources

Thanks to Wikipedia for its entries on ‘Gnomes of Zürich’, ‘Kung Fu’, ‘Garden Gnomes’ and ‘Grasshopper Club.’ Also thanks to the PSA for its article on the 2104 Grasshopper Cup.

Squash Futures III: Networks, Constructs & Probes

N.B. This article is the third in a series. The first two articles, “Sense / Leaders” and “Culture / Clubs,” were published previously on this blog.

Introduction

What can squash agents do to contribute to the sustainable development of their squash communities?

A range of methods suited to the sustainable development of communities is now available which complements existing expert-informed approaches. These methods replicate how social relationships form, but telescope the time down to achieve this and, as a result, reduce the degrees of separation between squash community members. They do this in a novel way whilst simultaneously addressing the issues and challenges associated with squash organisation and participation.

The use of these methods results in the development of a denser social fabric within and across squash communities which can lead to significant improvements in overall connection, interactivity and participation. When someone joins a squash community, how long does it take until they are well-connected? Years? What if you could condense that time into weeks or months? At a personal level, what impact could this have on their active involvement in the community? And, at community or club level, what benefits could be realised?

Influential people in squash communities are almost always well-connected socially; and, they’re within a few connections of most people in those communities – particularly those who are critical to what they want to influence. This typically occurs as people spend time together, either in conversation or through shared involvement in activities or initiatives which can benefit the community.

The sustainable development of squash communities is a social issue.

Stimulating: Social Networks

All members of squash communities belong to social networks by virtue of their personal connection to others. This form of community membership differs from that of squash club membership or squash programme membership, both of which involve the interaction of people with formal organisational structures and their administrators.

The purpose of ‘stimulating’ social networks is not to seek agreement on the way that a ‘problem’ (such as a dying squash community) should be ‘solved,’ or even to ‘sell’ solutions conceived by committees or experts. Rather, it is to create a framework within which a network of people can itself identify and solve problems in new and unconventional ways by tapping into their combined knowledge and experience.

Social Network Squash Futures III: Networks, Constructs & ProbesOver time, as people interact with each other and migrate from one place to another, they accumulate a collection of residual relationships. Their participation in these relationships is inherently based on trust and reciprocity. Together, these create social capital that can flow – via social networks – through and between squash communities, and be used to help their continuous development.

Exercises in stimulating social networks must be based on the understanding that a squash community needs some form of ongoing problem-solving or ‘threat / opportunity response’ capability – and that new community members (whether they play squash or not) need to be attracted in order to allow new identities and relationships to form. Once this is accepted, one or more “noble purposes” can be meaningfully identified based on the current state of each squash community. These are the purposes that everyone agrees are worthy but that no one person can spare the time or provide the resources needed to investigate.

The uncovering and stimulation of social networks is a key component in the enterprise of building sustainable squash communities.

Exploring: Social Constructs

The involvement of willing members of squash communities in exploring the nature of their communities is essential. Different groupings of individuals exist within all communities and it is important to identify them and to understand how they view the wider community and their involvement in it. Without such an understanding, it is not possible to take effective action in solving problems in ways which will contribute to the sustainable development of the community as a whole.

One method of exploring a squash community is archetype extraction which is typically carried out by a small group of community members helped by a facilitator. The method helps to collect the views of community members and re-interpret them in the form of ‘typical’ characters (‘archetypes’) which are uniformly agreed to be accepted cultural representations of the wider community. These archetypes may be complimentary in nature – or not!

Archetypes Squash Futures III: Networks, Constructs & ProbesUsing this method, archetypes may emerge which draw on age, gender, playing standard, marital status, club night attendance, parenthood, profession, team membership, ethnicity, committee membership, social reputation – or, in fact, none of these! In fact, the ‘archetype profile’ of every squash community is highly likely to be different from that of every other community and, unsurprisingly will change over time as members come and go.

Methods other than the archetypes exercise can also be used to derive useful social constructs . However, they all have one thing in common. They can be run in parallel with other problem-solving initiatives, or even as part of larger projects, such as:

  • The development of squash communities across regional areas
  • Conflict resolution between different community groups with opposing views
  • Inducting new members into a community or onto an organising body
  • Offering programmes, services and membership options tailored to members with different world-views

Taken together, social constructs provide squash communities with a much more meaningful, up to date and useful picture of themselves – something which is critical if its members want to help sustain them.

N.B. As with social network stimulation, social construct exploration methods are not only teachable, but are scalable. It’s possible to start small and grow.

Experimenting: Safe to Fail Probes

Understanding the nature of a squash community – and how it is changing – can make it easier to successfully introduce new events, new programmes and new forms of membership. But this doesn’t mean that every innovation will be successful. In fact it’s actually desirable to have a few failures (and even to plan some) so that lessons can be learned. What was being assumed that wasn’t so? What problems arose that weren’t anticipated, or that were? What proved more difficult – or easy – than we expected? What archetypes appeared that we didn’t know about?

And there’s another reason for regularly exploring squash communities. In complex societies, there are no repeating relationships between cause and effect. So, in certain circumstances, and at certain times, an initiative may succeed whereas at others the exact same initiative may fail. It may also be the case that an issue (such as falling squash club membership) may be perceived as a solvable problem, whereas it may be a natural consequence of changes in a squash community emerging from a changing combination of demographic and cultural influences.

Hence the need for experimentation – using ‘safe to fail’ probes.

Safe to Fail 230x300 Squash Futures III: Networks, Constructs & Probes‘Safe to fail’ probes are small-scale experiments that approach issues from different angles in safe-to-fail ways. The intent of these probes is to approach issues in a small-scale, contained manner which will allow emergent possibilities (things that we didn’t know about) to become more visible. The emphasis is not on ensuring success or avoiding failure, but in allowing ideas that are not useful to fail in contained and tolerable ways. The ideas that do produce observable benefits can then be adopted and amplified when the complex system (i.e. the squash community) has exhibited the desired response to a probe or stimulus. Where the social environments within which squash communities (and organised squash activities) exist become increasingly complex, what is known and what can be planned for becomes less certain.

Introducing and increasing social and organisational tolerance for failure is more crucial than ever. Some squash communities may not have the social fabric, self-knowledge or creativity to survive.

N.B. A safe to fail probe may take the form of a social squash participation or squash partnering initiative. Creative experimentation is the key.

Next time…

In the next post, I’ll take a look at a new form of squash agency which can stimulate the emergence of new leaders: the coaching of squash communities.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Cognitive Edge for the descriptions of the sense-making methods described above.

References

A Leader’s Framework for Decision-making” by David J. Snowden and Mary E. Boone is published in November 2007 issue of The Harvard Business Review.

Squash in The City

By the time I was offered my first ‘proper’ job in The City I’d already got form. There’d been a couple of years working on projects for The Giant Vampire Squid on Fleet Street, helping them clear up the mess after they’d been found guilty of aiding and abetting one of their more financially creative clients. Then there was a similar stint with The Thundering Herd, coaching some of their back office people in the creative pursuit of evidence which could help the firm show that their very own Masters of the Universe had been conducting business in a way that was entirely above board, or not. And, yes, there’d been other short-term gigs for investment banks, for retail banks, and even for brokerages. I had City form all right.

Then there was the other kind of form, the squash kind. I’d been playing for more than 25 years, during which time I’d usually managed to arrange one or two matches a week, irrespective of where in the world I was working. Of course there’d been a few squash-free periods (the time I spent working in Texas springs to mind) but, all in all, I couldn’t complain.

So, by the time I was offered the proper job, I was already primed to respond positively to any offers which would enable me to maintain a healthy work / squash balance. It just so happened that the job on offer was based in London’s Canary Wharf, then the venue for a recently announced international squash tournament. And it also just so happened that, in the basement of the building in which I would be working, were the only two squash courts in Canary Wharf.

I took the proper job.

I spent much of the next ten years or so working and studying in and around London. I played on the basement courts and at a squash club located within walking distance of where I was living at the time. Most years, I even managed to get to at least one session of the Canary Wharf Squash Classic, as my local international tournament was now called.

In 2013 it was the semi-finals – and a full house.

The first match ended in a 3-1 victory to England’s James Willstrop over Egypt’s Mohamed El Shorbagy, the knowledgeable and suitably refreshed audience showing its appreciation.

But it was the second match which saw overwhelming audience support for local boy Peter Barker in his match against reigning Canary Wharf Classic and British Open Champion Nick Matthew. Barker, born in the East London Borough of Havering had previously beaten Matthew only once in 21 attempts. But, in a physical match lasting 69 minutes, Barker ran out the eventual 3-1 winner to take his place alongside Willstrop in the final. The applause echoed round the packed arena for several minutes before Barker could begin his post-match interview.

Squash in the City may be international, but when the City boys turn up, it’s personal – and it’s always going to be local.

Sources

Thanks to World Squash for its review of the Canary Wharf Classic 2013 semi-finals.

 

Squash, Gold and the English…

In winning the squash men’s singles gold medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, England’s Nick Matthew repeated the feat he had first achieved at the 2010 Games in Delhi. The Delhi final was Matthew’s first as it had been for his opponent, fellow Englishman James Willstrop, who was also destined to finish as silver medallist in Glasgow.

Yet Matthew’s achievement in reaching two consecutive finals was not exceptional. The previous three men’s singles finals had all featured another prominent Briton and erstwhile England representative.

Scotland’s Peter Nicol.

Born in Inverurie, Aberdeenshire, Nicol represented Scotland in the 1998 Games in Kuala Lumpur, the first in which squash made its appearance. In a tight five-game match, Nicol beat Canadian – and reigning World Open champion – Jonathon Power to the gold. By the time both players had again reached the final four years later, Nicol had switched his allegiance to England, claiming that he felt he was not receiving sufficient support from Scottish Squash, his sport’s national governing body. Unsurprisingly, many of Nicol’s compatriots resented this switch, even going so far as calling it traitorous. To the satisfaction of some, perhaps, Nicol lost 3-1 to Power in the gold medal match.

Amazingly, four years later and still representing England, Nicol reached his third consecutive men’s singles final. This time, it was in Melbourne where, once more, he met a reigning World Open Champion in the form of Australian David Palmer. In a tough four-game final, it was Nicol who outlasted the tenacious Palmer to take gold. Amongst the team-mates congratulating Nicol as he came off court in Melbourne was Nick Matthew, the newly-crowned British Open champion. Matthew was to finish outside the medals in fourth place but four years later would start his own gold collection.

Nicol himself had announced his retirement shortly after his success at the 2006 Games, a quarter-final defeat in that year’s World Open being his last competitive match.

But what of 2018 when the Games are due to be staged in and around Brisbane on the Australian Gold Coast? Well, I certainly wouldn’t bet against an Englishman reaching the men’s singles final.

After all, he might not be.

Sources

To find out more about the careers of Nick Matthew, Peter Nicol, Jonathon Power and David Palmer, see Wikipedia. Details of all Commonwealth Games squash competitors can be found at the Commonwealth Games Federation website.

Squash Futures II: Culture / Clubs

This article is the second in a series. The first article, “Sense / Leaders,” was published previously on this blog.

Introduction

The traditional view of squash is that of a high-intensity racket sport played in  custom-built indoor facilities. Centred on the use of these facilities are squash clubs, organised groups of people typically living within the same geographical area. Clubs are viewed as being ordered, with their members being accountable for their behaviour both to their fellow members and to those of a wider squash community.

Al Ahram Setting 300x212 Squash Futures II: Culture / Clubs

Squash in Cairo

Of course, at any one time, a significant proportion of that community may not be actively participating in their sport whether through injury, accident, design, advancing years or a combination thereof. Yet, participants and non-participants alike potentially share one thing, irrespective of their gender, age, sexuality or ethnicity: the identity of squash agents.

Although they may not be aware of it, each, in their own way, is capable of projecting something into the future which will continue to nurture the playing of their sport: squash culture.

Squash Culture

Squash culture can be thought of as something which endures through, and only through, the sustained interaction of its agents (players and non-players alike) and their interaction with potential future agents. As the lives of those agents play out, as they migrate from area to area, age and die, so the nature of their agency will change as, inevitably, will that of the squash culture it nurtures.

Squash culture can exist and be expressed in an almost limitless number of ways. Some forms of expression (such as a squash match) may be common to all squash cultures, whereas others may be uncommon or even unique. In fact, squash culture can vary from population to population, from group to group, and even from person to person.

Crucially, squash culture is not just a by-product of the participation of individuals in organised squash activities. It is, in essence, a shared basis for social interaction shaped by the traditions, beliefs, values and knowledge inherited and transmitted by its agents. It is also dynamic and can mutate to occupy different socio-economic niches – rather than static, requiring individuals to conform to universal norms. And it is COMPLEX, its whole being far greater than the sum of its parts.

In the context of leadership, squash culture occupies the domain of unknown unknowns, the COMPLEX world of unpredictability. It is the domain to which much of contemporary business and Western public policy has shifted.

And it is the world of emergence.

Squash Development

In many Western countries squash culture has, to some extent, been viewed in terms of knowable processes and its ‘delivery’ as a by-product of ‘sport development’ activities. However, sport development, more often than not, takes the form of bespoke initiatives targetting specific populations, club memberships or demographic groups for the purpose of bringing about desired social and economic benefits.

Hong Kong Harbour Setting 300x187 Squash Futures II: Culture / Clubs

Squash in Hong Kong

This kind of approach reflects an ordered ‘cause and effect’ worldview, a SIMPLE world of predictability. This worldview focuses on playing squash (as a teachable skill) and the associated provision of playing-centred ‘participation’ services by squash coaches. In this context, the role of sport development experts is to devise initiatives which have the ‘best chance’ of ‘delivering’ the required participation which will, in turn, (it is believed) result in the desired socio-economic outcome.

The role of the expert assumes that contextual differences will exist from one initiative to another and that an analysis of each situation is necessary before a suitable initiative can be devised. The worldview supporting expert-led sport development also assumes an ordered or ‘knowable’ world of ‘cause and effect’ whilst recognising that context is key – a worldview associated with the COMPLICATED domain of leadership.

This worldview is well-established in the West and can help to shape initiatives which contribute to increasing participation in certain sports within carefully-selected target populations. However, participation levels in squash and other sports are also naturally subject to change over time as socio-economic environments change and the cultural identities (and behaviour patterns) of individuals mutate. Nature is not ordered and people are unpredictable.

In reality, we all live within COMPLEX socio-economic environments populated by competing cultural influences – and cultural agents. In these environments, the ability to detect and act on emerging signs of self-organised squash development is critical. One such sign could be the formation of networks or small groups of individuals to share and discuss ideas for change; another could be the initiation of local ‘social development’ initiatives which incorporate or ‘resonate’ with squash participation. Different signs will inevitably emerge from different socio-economic environments, but they must be sought and, when detected, acted upon.

Sustainable squash development will new forms of squash agency – and new breeds of squash agent – to project squash culture.

Squash Emergence

Squash leadership is one of many forms of squash agency. In COMPLEX situations, others will emerge as squash cultures are explored, emerging situations identified, and opportunities for action exploited.

So what will this exploration involve, and what will these actions look like?

Tower Bridge Setting 150x150 Squash Futures II: Culture / Clubs

Squash in London

The characteristics of leadership in ordered contexts (SIMPLE and COMPLICATED) are well documented but in unordered, COMPLEX contexts, they are less so. As we have seen above, such contexts are characterised by dynamism and unpredictability, the lack of ‘right’ answers as to how to deal with emerging situations, and the existence of many competing ideas.

They are also characterised by the appearance of emergent instructive patterns associated with creative and innovative approaches to squash participation, and of new forms of squash agency – both arising from interactions between interconnected squash agents.

So, future squash leadership will be ‘pattern-based’ and will involve:

  • The creation of environments and the conduct of experiments that will allow patterns to emerge. These environments will be physical, digital or a combination of both; but, whatever their form, they will support social interaction between squash agents.
  • The stimulation and growth of connection, communication and collaboration activity between squash agents.
  • The opening up of discussions using methods which can help generate ideas. These methods typically work by setting up barriers (to frame discussions), stimulating attractors (ideas which resonate with squash agents), encouraging dissent and diversity, managing starting conditions (to exploit unexpected opportunities), and monitoring for emergence.

As will be obvious, leadership in COMPLEX contexts requires much more interactive communication than in any other context. In fact, many of the methods described above are commonly referred to as large group methods (LGMs) and are proven ways of initiating and hosting democratic, interactive, multi-dimensional discussions.

Using these methods, populations of squash agents will share their experiences on an ongoing basis, and contribute new ideas which feed directly into leadership awareness. This helps leaders to spot the emergence of ‘weak patterns’ which are the first sign of the effects of changing socio-economic influences. It also complements traditional ‘consultation’ exercises (used in SIMPLE and COMPLICATED situations) which, typically, seek opinions about pre-defined courses of action or ‘strategies.’.

Of course, there are dangers in COMPLEX leadership such as the temptation to fall back into habitual ‘command and control’ mode, to look for ‘facts’ rather than to allow patterns to emerge, and to crave the accelerated solution of ‘problems’ or the premature exploitation of opportunities.

COMPLEX leadership requires patience and time for reflection.

Next time…

In the next post, we’ll take a look at some of the methods used to detect the emergent patterns which signal change in squash cultures.

References

A Leader’s Framework for Decision-making” by David J. Snowden and Mary E. Boone is published in November 2007 issue of The Harvard Business Review.

Monkey Business

I walked out of the apartment building into the early morning humidity of the Gulf and looked for a cab. In a city where buildings were being built (and demolished) at breakneck speed, I was lucky. Over the road was a Toyota car showroom, the only one in the city and a place whose location was probably known to every cab driver. This was important. Even with a simple grid system, many of the city’s streets were often known by more than one name; and residential buildings, all un-numbered, were rarely identified with prominent signs, whether in Arabic or English. When it came to telling cab drivers where it was you wanted to go, the names of hotels, government buildings, shopping malls and car showrooms were just about the only common language currency worth exchanging. So, even at six-forty in the morning, there were plenty of cabs dropping off 20 metres away and looking for the next fare. I was picked up within thirty seconds.

Emirates Squash Courts Monkey BusinessThe driver, his licence complete with photograph dangling from the rear-view mirror, was wearing a brown dish-dasha and a white skullcap. I settled into the back seat, directed him to the Hilton Hotel and sat back as he swerved into the flow of traffic. I didn’t actually work at the Hilton Hotel but, after a month in the city, I’d discovered that it was the instruction most likely to land me within a hundred metres or so of my office in a non-descript office block just off the Corniche. Today, the ten minute journey was less terrifying than usual, the driver being one of the few in the city who didn’t appear to be on a personal mission to catch and overtake every vehicle ahead of him on the road.
I walked into the office just before seven. Alex, the programme director, and Fadi, one of the project managers were both sitting at their desks. Alex, a Scot who’d been working in the city for nearly ten years, was deep in conversation on the ‘phone. Fadi, a Jordanian in his late forties, was smoking and staring at his computer screen which, on past form, could take any time upwards of thirty minutes to display anything whatsoever. He smiled and, as usual, rose from his desk reaching out his hand in greeting.

“Coffee?” he enquired.

I shook his hand and nodded. He walked to the door and disappeared down the corridor in search of the tea boy.

I dumped my brief-case on the desk and started to unpack my laptop. Alex waved at me and continued with his conversation. As well as being my boss on the consultancy project I was working on, he was the captain of the company’s third squash team. Tonight was match night. I sat down, plugged in my laptop and switched it on.

“Who’s playing at two?” Alex was asking his mystery caller. Obviously a squash-themed conversation was under way.

A pause.

“Well, he should win shouldn’t he?”

Another pause.

“So if I play Marwan at four and move Alan to three, what does that look like?”
I heard footsteps in the corridor and guessed that Fadi was returning with the tea boy.

“So if you win at one, three and five where does that put you for next week?”

It suddenly struck me that that there were only two rounds of the league left. I was beginning to become intrigued. Fadi re-appeared with the tea boy, resplendent in his black waistcoat and trousers, white shirt and black bow tie. He beamed in expectation of my order, the same one that he’d taken every day for the last month.

“So they’ll have to pick up, what, at least seven points tonight if they’re going to be in a good position going into next week’s match?”

Further information which added to the intrigue. Just in time, I raised my finger to stop the tea boy asking me for my order.

“He’s Sheikh Mohamed’s what?”

This was a new theme. Alex appeared to be drawing on his notepad muttering noiselessly to himself.

After what seemed like an age, he continued his series of enquiries.

“No he hasn’t rung me yet, but what do I say if he does? And how do I know that he knows that you’ve already rung me? What if he smells a rat?”

I looked at Fadi, nodded towards Alex and mouthed silently.

“What’s that all about?”

Fadi shrugged, then walked over and whispered in my ear.

“Monkey business,” he said conspiratorially and gave a knowing wink.

I tried to look as if I’d grasped the full meaning of what he’d said and nodded, sagely. There was a further pause in the conversation accompanied by further drawing as whoever it was on the other end of the ‘phone responded to Alex’s triple whammy of questions.

“So we’ll only know after tonight whether he’s already rung Razi,” said Alex hesitantly, “and that will give us an indication of whether he’s going to ring me…which I reckon he will anyway…because he won’t want to take the risk that you’re going to have a word with…er…Gary is it?”

I noticed that my mouth had fallen open and closed it.

Suddenly, there seemed to be a consensus between the two parties involved in the conversation.

“Yes, yes, OK, yes,” said Alex. “I’ll talk to a few people and get back to you.”

He put the ‘phone down and examined his notes in silence. Fadi had returned to his desk, lit another cigarette and began to read his copy of The Gulf News. The tea boy was hovering beside my desk waiting for my order.

“Coffee, please, Raj” I said. “Black, no sugar.”

He smiled and scuttled off to do whatever it was that took him fifteen minutes to make a cup of coffee.

Abu Dhabi Hotel Westin Monkey Business“So what was all that about,” I asked Alex after a respectful pause. He peered at me over the top of his computer screen then stood up, walked over to the door and closed it after first looking up and down the corridor. He returned to his desk, sat down and picked up his notepad.

“Well, just between you and me,” he began, seemingly ignoring the presence of Fadi, “I was having a chat with the captain of NIC’s third team. We’re playing them tonight at their place. He just rang up to see if everything was OK.”

I knew that NIC was the Emirate’s National Investment Company. As Alex worked for the National Oil Company he was, in local squash parlance, the NOC third team captain.

“They’re second in the league three points behind NGC with two matches left. We’re third, five points behind NIC, and have got NGC at home next week in the last match. NIC have got NWC in their last match but they’re way off the pace.”

I congratulated myself that I knew ‘G’ stood for gas and ‘W’ for water in Alex’s acronym-laden summary of the current state of affairs.

“So it could all come down to the last week,” I said. “That should be interesting.”

Alex gave me a weary look.

“Yes, well that’s what Ahmed doesn’t want.”

“Who’s Ahmed?”

“NIC’s third team captain.”

I prepared to make a comment which I suddenly sensed might be deemed inappropriate given the complex nature of life in the Emirates. This was a land of unelected rulers, family-dominated politics, opaque commercial practices and disenfranchised guest workers. To do business here, foreign companies needed local sponsorship and a flexible attitude when it came to meeting local expectations regarding almost any kind of social or financial transaction. Including, I was beginning to realise, the functioning of the city’s squash leagues.

I bit my tongue.

“He’s one of Sheikh Abdul’s cousins’ sons,” continued Alex, “Whereas NGC’s vice-captain is one of Sheikh Mohamed’s sisters’ boys. Bit of a tricky situation, you see.”

I went for a neutral question.

“So what happened last year?”

Alex’s face lit up.

“We won the league,” he beamed. “First time I’ve ever won anything to be honest. The boss was very pleased.”

I knew that Alex’s boss, Hosni, was a prominent member of NOC’s so-called ‘Egyptian mafia’ and a favourite of the Senior Administration Superintendent.

“Yes, well we had a well-balanced squad last year,” continued Alex. “I was playing at five, Ghazi was at one and Karim was at two. We were pretty lucky with injuries too. Nothing major.”

I smiled and nodded as he re-lived his success in captaining the team to sporting glory. For a brief moment I imagined him developing effective strategies for neutralising opposing teams, getting the best out of his players, moulding them into a title-winning unit, that kind of thing. A bit like Napoleon.

He leaned back in his chair and clasped his hands behind his head.

“Of course we did have one advantage,” he said.

I responded to his subtle prompt.

“Oh yes, what was that?”

“We had Sheikh Abdullah’s second cousin playing at three. Nice lad. He really came on during the season. Won every match, in fact.”

Sheikh Abdullah was the President’s younger brother. Something was starting to make sense.

“Yes,” continued Alex, “although I suppose he was being coached by Sami Awad.”

I seem to remember my eyebrows raising at this point, although I can’t be sure.

“You mean the Egyptian number one?” I asked, already knowing the answer.

“And former World Open champion,” added Alex.

“But how did…”

“Well Hosni used to go to school with him in Cairo. Big chums they were. Kept in touch over the years and, well, Hosni asked him to pop over and bring Saleh up to speed. And the rest of the squad while he was here, of course.”

Saleh, I assumed, was Sheikh Abdullah’s second cousin.

“But how did he get onto your team? I thought only NOC employees were eligible.”

Something immediately told me that wouldn’t be a problem.

“He was working here two days a week for his dad.”

“Who’s his dad?”

Alex smiled.

“Sultan Al Najaf.”

The name rang a bell. The Senior Administration Superintendent! I formulated my next question carefully.

“Who is…”

“Sheikh Abdullah’s cousin,” said Alex, nodding.

I summarised.

“So last season, you, your boss, his boss, the President’s younger brother and the former World Open champion were all involved in…”

“You could put it like that.”

“And this season…”

“Well, we have to help one of the other teams win the league, don’t we? Nobody wants the same team winning every year. It’s not the way they do things around here.”

“But who’s involved with the other teams?” I asked.

Alex sighed.

“It’s far too complicated to explain, to be honest. I tried to draw a diagram showing who’s in who’s team, who works for who, who’s related to who, who used to go to school with who, blah blah blah. Pointless.”

He paused for breath.

“Anyway, last year was our turn and this year it’s someone else’s. All I’ve got to do is make sure that whoever needs to be happy after next week’s matches is happy…and that everybody else is happy that they’re happy. Simple really.”

He smiled, picked up his notepad and walked to the door.

“Not sure I’ll be back before lunch,” he said to no-one in particular. “I’ve got a lot of people to see, tea to drink, hands to shake. You know how it is.”

He opened the door and disappeared down the corridor just as Raj was arriving with my coffee.

Fadi put down his Gulf News, glanced at his still-dormant computer screen and prepared to order further refreshment before he tackled the crossword.

“So did you find out what he was talking about?” he asked.

I thought for a moment, struggling to formulate an explanation. Then, the nature of my conversation with Alex suddenly made sense. I smiled.

“Monkey business,” I said.

“Monkey business.”

Background

This story is based on my own personal experience of living, working and playing squash in The Middle East. The names of the characters have been changed to protect whomsoever you might think is innocent or guilty…or not.

Red Sea Showdown

Both hailing from Egypt and having brothers on the World Squash Tour, Ramy Ashour and Mohamed El-Shorbagy have plenty in common. Both have also won the World junior squash championship twice, Ashour in 2004 and 2006 being the first to achieve the double with El-Shorbagy picking up the 2008 and 2009 titles.

Yet, even more remarkably, El-Shorbagy’s achievement has since been matched by his younger brother, Marwan, who in January become the first qualifier to reach the quarter-finals of the Tournament of Champions in New York for 10 years.

At the same tournament Mohamed El-Shorbagy reached the semi-finals losing to France’s Gregory Gaulter. But three months later, on the shores of the Red Sea, El-Shorbagy he was to gain revenge on Gaultier beating him in four games to reach the final of the El Gouna International…where, coincidentally, he was to meet his fellow two-time World Junior Squash Champion, Ramy Ashour.

Here are some of the highlights from the semi-finals and the final. Maybe you’d like to try some of the shots they play during your next match.

On the other hand…

Semi-Final #1 – Ramy Ashour beat Amr Shabana

11-9 11-5 11-5

Semi-Final #2 – Mohamed El-Shorbagy beat Gregory Gaultier

11-6 14-16 11-9 12-10

Final – Ramy Ashour beat Mohamed El Shorbagy

11-7 12-10 8-11 11-8

Acknowledgements

You can find full details of the 2014 El Gouna International at the tournament website. Thanks to PSA Squash TV for posting the highlights.

Jansher’s Last Title

In the 1990s I was living in a small village in Hertfordshire about 35 miles north of London. As far as my own participation in squash was concerned, I played at local clubs and helped to organise competitions at one of them on the Cambridgeshire border. It wasn’t, and still isn’t, a highly-populated area. Yet 40 minutes away by road was the Galleria Shopping Centre at Hatfield. And from 1996 to 1998, the top eight male squash players in the world gathered there to compete in the World Super Series event.

Jansher Khan 150x150 Janshers Last Title

Jansher Khan

In March 1996, local boy Del Harris from Essex took the title, beating Australia’s Brett Martin 10-8 7-9 9-4 6-9 9-2. It was the second noisiest squash match I’ve ever witnessed. En route to the final, Harris had knocked out World Number 1 Jansher Khan in the noisiest. It was Khan’s first defeat on the World Tour for over two years during which he had beaten Harris in the 1995 World Open final in Nicosia.

Twelve months later, Jansher and Martin contested the final, Jansher winning 9-7 9-5, 9-2. As in the previous year, point-a-rally scoring was used with a tennis-style ‘advantage’ system coming into operation should the score reach 8-all.

In 1998, two of the world’s top eight players, Jonathon Power and Ahmed Barada, were absent through injury, their places being taken by world-ranked number 9, Del Harris, and number 10, Simon Parke. To the surprise of many, it was Parke who reached the final where he found himself up against Jansher, now ranked World Number 2.

Simon Parke 150x150 Janshers Last Title

Simon Parke

To say that Parke was a popular figure at the time would be an understatement. In December 1995, he had been diagnosed with testicular cancer. The following month,  he underwent surgery followed by treatment which included chemotherapy. Just four months after his surgery, he had returned to the professional squash circuit. Now, playing as well has he had ever played, he had a shot at Jansher, who was then British Open champion and had won eight titles in 1997 alone.

Despite vociferous local support, the match proved a challenge too far for Parke who lost 15-12, 13-15, 15-11, 15-10. But, unbeknownst to me and the rest of the Galleria audience that Sunday evening in March, the encounter was have a final twist in its tail.

Having won 99 tournaments during his long and illustrious career, Jansher Khan would not win another title again.  

Sources

Thanks to Squashtalk for their listing of Jansher Khan’s 99 titles.

Swedish Squash Balls

Living just outside London, I’ve managed to get to some major squash tournaments over the years both in and outside the capital. There was the British Open during its residency at Wembley, the Super Series at Hatfield (and then The City), the Canary Wharf Classic in Docklands and the World Series Finals in West Kensington. Hailing from Manchester, I’ve also combined trips back home with visits to the National Championships (and one World Series event) at the National Squash Centre. Some footage from these events can be found on the Web and, for my own amusement and gratification, I’ve decided to post it here as and when I stumble across it.

But, to start the ball rolling, here are some highlights from the recent 2014 Swedish Open held in Linköping which, unfortunately, I didn’t get to. But I wish I had.

Semi-Final #1 – Ramy Ashour beat Amr Shabana

9-11 11-2 11-8 6-11 11-7

Semi-Final #2 – Nick Matthew beat Gregory Gaultier

12-10 11-8 11-1

Final: Nick Matthew beat Ramy Ashour

11-13 11-6 11-8 6-11 11-4

Acknowledgements

You can find full details of the 2014 Swedish Open at the tournament website. Thanks to PSA Squash TV for posting the highlights.

Squash Futures I: Sense / Leaders

England’s squash governing body, England Squash and Racketball, was recently hit by a 20% reduction in its funding by Sport England (another public body) after ‘failing to halt the decline in people playing the sport.’ Along with the reduction, Sport England has demanded “a rapid and immediate improvement in leadership” by ESR which has also been asked to review its “current participation strategy.”

These demands reflect a belief that, if they’re met, the decline in the number of people playing squash in England actually can be halted. Although there isn’t space on this blog to explore the world-view that this belief reflects, one thing is certain. The issue of squash participation in a world of dynamic social change, economic uncertainty and cultural diversity is a complex one. And, to address it successfully, new forms of leadership will need to appear.

To understand why, it’s worth looking at the nature of leadership in complex situations, and at the kind of actions needed if squash is to evolve and occupy the most hospitable socio-economic niches, not just in England but across the world.

The Four Domains of Leadership

Whatever else it is, leadership is about making sense: of social environments and trends; of human behaviour; of cultures; and of situations, current and emergent. Without effective sense-making, it’s not even possible to make effective decisions. And without effective decisions, squash – along with every other sport – can’t respond quickly enough to changes in the complex environments within which it’s competing with other forms of activity.

Fortunately, recent research has led to a deeper understanding of the dynamic  nature of social environments. It’s also led to the emergence of some tools which can help people to make sense of the fast-changing situations in which they find themselves, and respond in the most effective way. One of these tools, a sense-making framework created by Welsh researcher Dave Snowden, is shown below.

cynefin Squash Futures I: Sense / Leaders

Snowden’s Leadership Framework

Snowden’s framework is used in a wide range of contexts by governments and organisations all over the world. Its purpose is to help decision-makers quickly assess dynamic situations and decide the most appropriate courses of action in responding to them. It also helps them to learn how the social groupings and networks around them are changing by monitoring real-time information fed to them by their members.

The framework comprises four ontologies or domains – simple, complicated, complex and chaotic – which can be used to understand and assess current situations. Of course, all of us have different world-views, experience and sensitivities, and so a situation which is complex or chaotic to one decision-maker may appear to be simple to another. With this in mind, it should be obvious that the framework isn’t a static collection of ‘pigeon holes’ for categorising situations or problems; it’s a dynamic tool for leading conversations, seeking consensus and agreeing actions.

When looking at the framework, it’s wise to remember that leadership isn’t just a skills-based capability which is, or even can be, possessed solely by the occupants of certain positions of authority. It’s a state which any individual is capable of attaining, often at times and in circumstances when they most need to – or when others most need them to.

And leadership takes many forms.

1. Feudal / Bureaucratic Leadership (SIMPLE)

In simple situations, we sense that we’re dealing with well-known issues which can be successfully dealt with using well-known methods. These methods are sometime referred to as ‘best practices’ and tend to be straightforward and easy to learn. Everybody agrees about the right courses of action to be taken which are regarded as ‘obvious.’

In simple situations, our beliefs are based on a strong assumption of order and of certainty that specific actions will lead to predictable and consistent outcomes. When we live in simplicity, we tend to categorise or ‘pigeon-hole’ the situations we’re in and then respond to them in tried and tested ways.

Leadership in simplicity rests on ensuring that reliable methods are in place: methods for performing routine activities; for monitoring for complacency (sloppiness); and for detecting early signs that methods need to be changed. This kind of leadership is often referred to as ‘bureaucratic’ or ‘feudal’ leadership, and is suited to the maintenance and improvement of controlled processes operating within stable environments.

To some extent, living in simplicity is rather like living in the past. It feels comfortable, but previously stable environments can suddenly become unstable or can even collapse into chaos. Think ‘global financial crisis.’

2. Oligarchic Leadership (COMPLICATED)

In complicated situations, we sense that we’re dealing with issues which, although not well-understood, can be understood by experts. As with simple situations, we assume that complicated situations are ordered in some way and that we can forecast outcomes. But we also see that the same outcome can arise after  taking different courses of action. So, we accept that we’ll have to analyse each situation before we decide how to respond to it in the most appropriate way.

This approach requires systems thinking and typically leads to the development of good practice approaches (also known as methodologies) for analysing similar situations and deciding bespoke courses of action. Depending on the nature of the situation, we typically seek the help of experts to support us in navigating through the different methods and courses of action available to us.

Leadership in complication rests on ensuring that the right people and practices are brought together at the right time to analyse and respond to situations. Courses of action are typically planned and carried out in the form of structured projects with feedback being used to monitor progress and change direction, if necessary. This kind of leadership is detached, yet sensitive to deadlines and any issues and risks arising. It’s often referred to as oligarchic leadership in that power over what courses of action are to be taken rests with a small number of expert-advised people.

Living in complication involves a constant search for what we believe are the right experts. However, there’s a risk in always believing the opinions of experts. As they  compete amongst themselves, experts are sometimes prone to believe in their own infallibility, descend into group-think and adhere to outdated and inappropriate approaches.

And in complex or chaotic situations, this can prove disastrous.  

3. Patriarchal / Matriarchal Leadership (COMPLEX)

In complex situations, we sense that we’re dealing with unordered scenarios. We don’t understand what’s happening but we sense that it’s possible to find out. We sense or see coherent patterns of behaviour, but they don’t seem to repeat for any length of time. There appear to be constraints in the system, but if we try to impose rules, people break, ignore or circumvent them. What’s more, any evidence we can find to tell us what’s happening supports multiple, contradictory positions.

Leadership in complexity rests on continuously probing social environments for meaningful narrative information using multiple safe to fail experiments. We know that some of these short, sharp probes will provide new insights into what people are thinking and feeling which can be used to support effective decision-making. Other probes won’t.

To support continuous communication with different social groupings, we acquire the habit of routinely asking for, collecting and responding to rapid feedback about what we’re facing and what we’re thinking of doing. This leads us to the creation of human sensor networks using approaches such as the stimulation of social networks using social media. We try to make sure that our networks are as diverse as possible since people of different ages and from different backgrounds tend to give us different perspectives. This helps us to design different kinds of safe to fail probes.  

Leadership in complexity tends to be patriarchal or matriarchal in nature as it is heavily dependent on openness, trust and reciprocity. If openness and trust are lost, they are often impossible to regain.

4. Tyrannical / Charismatic Leadership (CHAOS)

In chaotic situations, we sense that we’re dealing with turbulent, unordered scenarios in which it’s impossible to understand what’s happening. We don’t sense or see any repeating patterns of activity and, unlike complex situations, there’s no evidence of any constraints in the system. Everything seems to be in a state of permanent transition. Things that we once took for granted no longer apply.

Leadership in chaos rests on fast, authoritative action. We are in crisis and there’s no time to be reasonable. Decisions have to be made and stuck to; going back on them will risk further turbulence and uncertainty. Yet, as we take action, opportunities to reduce turbulence and to innovate begin to appear like shadows in fog.

Effective preparation for leadership in chaos depends heavily on the presence of pre-existing human sensor networks. Not only can these provide immediate feedback in response to requests for information, they can act as a source of members for crews, groups of conscripts who can be rapidly organised to stabilise specific situations. And, as in complex situations, the more diverse the feedback the better.

Leadership in chaos is, by necessity, tyrannical. The power to direct actions must be seized if it is not already held. Time is of the essence. Some tyrants, of course, are charismatic. However, charisma alone does not guarantee leadership effectiveness.

The Fifth Dimension and Leadership Dynamics

A closer look at Snowden’s framework reveals a fifth domain. The domain of Disorder separates the other four, snaking like an abyss between them. It represents leadership paralysis and inaction, the state of not sensing which of the other four domains most accurately describes a situation.

The abyss is at its deepest between the Simple and Chaos domains. Simple situations, if not continuously assessed in the light of new knowledge, can suddenly descend into Chaos. Old habits can die hard.

Cynefin Simple Cycle Squash Futures I: Sense / Leaders

Snowden’s Framework – Simple Cycle

As little time as possible should be spent in the domain of Disorder. Better to cycle through the other four until one is found which feels the closest to current reality.

And that’s the value of Snowden’s framework, along with others which have been developed over recent years. Leadership needs to be felt rather than just done. Different ‘states of reality’ demand different forms of leadership.

And without the ability to sense those states and respond appropriately, leadership cannot survive, let alone serve the evolution of squash.

Next time…

In the next post, I’ll look at the role of culture in shaping leadership.

References

A Leader’s Framework for Decision-making” by David J. Snowden and Mary E. Boone is published in November 2007 issue of The Harvard Business Review.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Squash Mad for its post “England Squash suffer budget slash and are threatened with further action unless new objectives are met” on January 25th, 2014.

The new dynamics of strategy: Sense-making in a complex and complicated world” by Cynthia Kurtz and Dave Snowden is published in the IBM Systems Journal, Volume 42, No 3, 2003.