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High Performance thrives in Teams that Embrace a Paradox Mindset


March 2001. Steve Waugh walks out for the toss with Sourav Ganguly at the iconic Eden Gardens. The stands are packed. But most of the 100,000 Calcutta (now Kolkata) fans are not delusional enough to expect an Indian victory. After all, the Indians are facing opponents who lay claim to being the greatest Test team in the history of the sport. 

Don Bradman’s Invincibles may have gone an entire English summer without losing a single match, but they had not won 16 Test matches on the trot as Waugh’s men had. Those Waugh led 16 victories had all come within a heady 18-month period between August 1999 and February 2001. Clive Lloyd’s West Indies at their peak had only managed 11. The last of those 16 Aussie victories had been in the previous Test at Mumbai, where the Indians had been blown away by 10 wickets inside three days. Wicketkeeper-batsman Adam Gilchrist, whose career thus far was all of 15-Tests long, had never experienced anything but victory. Nothing, it seemed, could stop the juggernaut.

Over the course of the next five days at the Eden Gardens, everything would change. Following on, backs to the wall, VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid fought back as no two Indian batsmen had ever done before. Eventually, Laxman departed for 281 after batting for ten-and-a-half hours. Dravid was run out from sheer exhaustion after scoring 180. Together they had destroyed the will and the ego of an Australian team that had forgotten what a back-to-the-wall situation felt like.

Australian opener Matthew Hayden later recalled, "On that fourth morning we’d been so confident of preserving our winning streak that Michael Slater had produced a box of cigars, provocatively sniffing one as if to say, ‘This result is so close I can smell it.’ We all saw the humour, as you do when you’ve won 16 in a row and fully expect to extend the margin." 

It wasn't just Laxman and Dravid however. Unheralded spinner Harbhajan Singh took 13 wickets. Tendulkar, had an indifferent outing with the bat. But then he made up with the ball, picking up three crucial wickets when captain Ganguly unexpectedly brought him on. India won the match. 

VVS Laxman would tell me years later: ‘That match taught us never to give up. If you believe that you can do something and stick it out to the end, anything is possible. It is what changed Indian cricket and how we approached the game then on.’ 

Indeed, for Indian cricket, the impact of the victory would be felt for years to come. Eden Gardens 2001 would trigger the next phase in its inexorable progress that Kapil’s Devils had started in 1983. In June this year, India will be the only nation to qualify for both finals of the World Test Championships staged thus far.

But what was the crucial change in approach that has made this journey possible, and indeed different from most other teams in the world? What is that single element that has enabled sustainable high performance of the teams even as the individuals within have changed? The answer lies in the the fact that the Men in Blue embraced a Paradox Mindset

An INSEAD paper published a few months ago talks about how the paradox mindset enhances creativity in teams, when we place an emphasis on diverse teams marked by different, even contradictory, perspectives. When teams adopt paradoxical frames, the authors hypothesised, 'they collectively recognise the contradictions inherent in the task at hand, yet understand that the contradictions could feed off each other to the team’s benefit.'

Sourav Ganguly and the ever more successful captains who followed him - MS Dhoni and Virat Kohli - were perfectly aware that they didn't, and could not under normal conditions, expect to have the best team in the world at any given point in time. The key to winning consistently lay in embracing the paradoxes, changing the mindset that focused on the limits of their ability, and using available resources optimally and creatively. 

One among several areas to be worked on, was that the Indian team has always had a problem with weak lower order batting. The solution was to develop a 'buddy system', pairing up the best batsmen to mentor a bowler each, give the latter enough batting practice at the nets, and impart tips on how to survive at the crease and rotate strike to the more able batsman at the other end. 

Another change was to pack the limited overs (white ball) team with as many all-rounders as the team could accommodate. This wasn't done by necessarily completely revamping the team, but often by picking batsmen with an ability to bowl, getting them to spend time at the nets and develop this 'secondary skill', and the best bowlers to do the same for their batting. The result was a steady stream of more than capable all-rounders forming the core of the middle order. 

Between 1974 and 1999 India played 425 One Day internationals and won 45% of them. Over the next 25-years India played 50% more matches (604) and won 57% of them. In Test matches, those percentage increases were far more dramatic. These are huge shifts in both percentage and absolute terms, signs of a team whose minds are unlimited by their ability, excelling at perpetuating the paradox mindset. 

The lessons for us in business could not be clearer. When we are facing up to the best-in-class competitors in our field, and our products and performance thus far pale against the competition, it is easy to slip into a defeatist mode. The answer lies in not trying to beat the competition at their own game, but stepping back to reflect on what it is that you can do differently, and thereby changing the way the game is played. 

But the Paradox Mindset is as important for a wannabe leader in a sector as it is for the incumbent. Toyota Motors' continual success over decades is a case in point of a company that sustainably does well. A Harvard Business Review paper in 2008 looked at why they stay at the top of the pile. This is what they said:

'The famous TPS (Toyota Production System) is a “hard” innovation that allows the company to keep improving the way it manufactures vehicles; in addition, Toyota has mastered a “soft” innovation that relates to corporate culture. The company succeeds, because it creates contradictions and paradoxes in many aspects of organizational life. Employees have to operate in a culture where they constantly grapple with challenges and problems and must come up with fresh ideas. That’s why Toyota constantly gets better. The hard and the soft innovations work in tandem. Like two wheels on a shaft that bear equal weight, together they move the company forward. Toyota’s culture of contradictions plays as important a role in its success as TPS does.'

As business leaders we often get tied down by our busyness. Every time I get mired in it and don't give myself time to step back and reflect, I remind myself of a throwaway line from Israeli psychologist Amos Trevsky that is taped to my computer screen: 'You waste years by not being able to waste hours.' If we give ourselves the time to reflect on the paradoxes that exist in our businesses, and embrace those contradictions, we can all perform miracles with our people and our organisations. 

Whether you are an Unicorn founder, or a a CEO striving to make your company the industry leader (or remaining there), adopting a paradox mindset and making it a part of your corporate culture could well be the key to opening up the gates of sustainable high performance. 

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