In the run-up to what would turn out to be England’s grand-slam-winning RBS Six Nations game against France on Saturday evening, The Times ran an article on one of the rising stars of Eddie Jones’ new-look national team: Maro Itoje. The young lock has been hailed by many as a future England captain: he has the talent, the temperament and the unrelenting determination to improve. The article refers to Itoje’s days at St George’s School Harpenden, where he received supplementary one-to-one tuition from the Saracens academy coach, Matt Davies. Davies remembers “a young man who was clearly extraordinarily gifted, yet for all his qualities…it was his questioning that set him apart”. Itoje’s constant refrain during training? Why will this drill make me a better rugby player?
This mentality, so prevalent amongst top-tier athletes, ensures that a) preparation time is spent efficiently and b) the ultimate end-goal is never neglected. It helps to maintain a tight focus on what needs to be achieved and how best to achieve it. It is a psychological defence against the dangers of groupthink, conventionality and the meek, uncritical acceptance of received wisdom.
There seems to be a real danger in advertising agencies that generic approaches are unthinkingly applied to individual, nuanced problems. The same slide decks, the same charts, the same strategic frameworks. In many cases, these tools are appropriate. However, their use must be continually accompanied by introspection: about whether a different approach would better serve our client’s commercial goals and, subsequently, whether we ourselves could be better strategists. To quote another great sporting figure, Sir David Brailsford, there is a need for a philosophy of continual self-criticism and mechanical optimisation: a system of intellectual ‘marginal gains’.