One of the highlights of my rugby career was my time with Stade Toulousain,also referred to as Toulouse. Toulouse is the most successful club in Europe, having won the Heineken Cup/European Rugby Champions Cup a record five times – in 1996, 2003, 2005, 2010, and 2021. I don’t come from a rugby background and I didn’t watch much rugby growing up. I had never seen Toulouse play until I played for the brilliant French club Dax in 1998. When I first saw them play, I thought to myself, I didn’t think rugby could be played that way, it was like watching art. Fast forward two years and I was on the receiving end of a Toulouse thrashing when we played there with Leinster. My abiding memory of that game was confusion, they moved with such speed and they seemed to play with no structure at all. I figured that they just selected highly talented players and let the pitch be their canvas. A few years later, when I was playing with this great club, I realized I was wrong.
Toulouse are going through a golden patch at the moment having won the national and European competitions last season (2020/21). One of the core reasons is the incredible work by former players in the club, including the now president Didier Lacroix. When I played there, Didier was working hard on the Toulouse academy to develop younger players.
The incredible style that we see Toulouse play with is part of a culture of play that is infused into the mindset of the players. Unbeknownst to others, like me before I played there, the apparent random improvisation is not random at all. Inherent in the “off the cuff” style of play, (like you see in the clip above featuring a brilliant player I am honoured to have played alongside, Maxime Médard) is a discipline. This style of play is drilled into players from a young age. The team has what are known as starter plays for certain situations on the field and certain scenarios in a game, but once these starter-plays ignite the play, then the players improvise within a certain boundary. There is discipline to improvisation, there is order in the chaos and there is freedom within the restrictions. They play rugby very like jazz musicians improvise.
“Many people don’t understand how disciplined you have to be to play jazz… And that is really the idea of democracy – freedom within the Constitution or discipline. You don’t just get out there and do anything you want.” – Dave Brubeck
Just as Toulouse play a free-flowing style of rugby within prescribed parameters, Jazz musicians improvise within regularly rehearsed restrictions. They have extensive knowledge of their craft in order to freestyle within it. Contrary to the name, improvisation requires a lot of planning and practice. Furthermore, within improvisation, there are different styles of improvisation including melodic, harmonic, and motivic. There is order within apparent chaos.
My son started showing an interest in strength training from watching me over the Covid lockdown. As with most kids (I did it as an adult too), he wants to jump to weight lifting. I invite him to join me but doing only bodyweight and balance exercises. I explain to his tendons need to become accustomed to certain movements and to strengthen in order to support muscle growth. Many of us make the mistake of going too heavy too early and cause injury. It can be boring to do the foundational work in order to get to the fancy stuff. It can be boring in rugby to practice the basic passes so that you can make the killer one (like Maxime in the clip above) and it can be boring in music to learn the scales over and over before improvising.
In Innovation work, it is no different.
We must have extensive knowledge of our industry, of adjacent arenas. We must read widely and eclectically. We must dream big and experiment small.
A huge mistake in innovation work is to hire someone in an innovation role who is all chaos and no order. If you do have an innovator who lacks discipline, then it is important to support them with a do-er. While vision without action is a daydream, action without vision is a nightmare.
Talent without discipline is not enough.
Wonder without rigour remains wonder.
Chaos with order remains chaotic.
One final thing in Innovation is that Innovators need leadership air cover in order to succeed. When you are improvising you are going to make mistakes. It is only through embracing the mistakes that breakthroughs emerge.
“You never know what’s going to work. You just go with what you believe in, whether it’s a success or not. There’s a way of playing safe, there’s a way of using tricks and there’s the way I like to play which is dangerously where you’re going to take a chance on making mistakes in order to create something you haven’t created before”. – Dave Brubeck
I leave you this week with Brubeck improvising with his quartet.