Change lessons from the Australian Open

The Australian Open has now finished and the players have flown out to their next events on the calendar. It was an eventful few weeks both during and in the lead-up to the tournament. So, what does the tennis have to do with change? From our point of view, quite a lot!

After watching it play out in the news, we thought it a great opportunity to share with you seven (of course!) of the lessons that we took from the Open and which we apply when helping our clients navigate through change.

Lessons from the Australian Open that you can apply to change

  1. You need a leader with a vision and the determination to make it happen: When Craig Tiley, CEO Tennis Australia, announced in August, in the middle of a full lockdown in Melbourne, that the Australian Open would still take place, there were many doubters – us included. However, he was determined it would still go ahead and worked hard and long negotiating with both the Victorian Government and the players to make it happen.
  2. You have to remain flexible: As determined as Tennis Australia was to hold the tournament, it still had to agree to delay it by three weeks from its usual start of mid-January. And then again, during the tournament, plans for spectators and players had to change as the state went into a short, sharp 5-day lockdown. As the Prussian Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke said, “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.” In change, you need to be pragmatic and ready to reassess and change your plans to achieve your outcomes.
  3. Reactions are normal – so be prepared for them: At FOLD7, we don’t believe that resistance is natural. However, we do believe that reactions to change are. Positive reactions, when harnessed and supported will lead to change, whereas negative reactions if not listened to or understood can lead to resistance and a distraction to getting things done. Not all negative reactions are bad – often there is a genuine reason for it and by listening, you can help find a solution or your objectors to understand why you have to do something. Although Bernard Tomic’s girlfriend’s reaction to hotel quarantine and not being able have someone come in and wash her hair does not constitute that in our book!
  4. Compliance requires strong but empathetic leadership: Compliance is generally not up for negotiation and needs strong leadership but that leadership also needs to be empathetic. Having the fortitude to stick to your guns, but also be willing to listen to objections is crucial. Craig Tiley, faced a barrage of complaints from the players over the quarantine and personally agreed to meet with them daily to hear their concerns, rather than leaving it to his team to deal with. When you have a leader that leads by example and is consistent in how they apply their rules, the change is more likely to be taken seriously. However, we shouldn’t forget that all leaders are people first and foremost and, as Craig discovered first-hand, there can often be a personal toll on those trying to be a good change leader.
  5. Understand your environment well before setting out: Organisations have their own rules, ways of working and unwritten expectations. Few countries in the world (New Zealand excepted) have had as strict quarantine restrictions as Australia. The rules apply to everyone – and most Australians know and accept these. If you’re not prepared to accept the organisational environment or the rules and regulations that go with it, you are setting yourself up for problems. We have heard many times “We did this (insert change) at our last place so we should do it like this here.” For the tennis players who haven’t had to deal with such strict quarantine regulations before, many felt they shouldn’t have to comply and that the rules from the US Open should apply here. To come into a new environment thinking that the ways of a previous environment (or tournament/country) will work in the new one is a sure way to have a change fail. Learn about your new environment first, accept that things will be different, then determine what’s feasible before launching into what/how to change.
  6. The perception of fairness is paramount: Apply the ‘rules’ of your change fairly – having some tennis players quarantine in Victoria, whilst others quarantined in South Australia potentially gave (or could have been perceived to have given) players an advantage. People’s perceptions are important and should be considered and prepared for (see lesson #3 above). And even when you may not be able to be totally fair e.g. somebody is going to get that prime desk next to the window in a relocation change, try and acknowledge the advantage and/or explain the reasons. When you apply change differently for different groups, you are bound to have more reactions than you planned for. Imagine how returning Australians would have felt had the tennis players not had to quarantine the same as them?
  7. Consider the flow-on effects: The flow-on (or down-stream) effects from one aspect of change must be well thought through. Most would agree that Australia has handled the COVID-19 pandemic well and that if the players wanted to play in the Australian Open, they had to follow Australian rules. However, there are always consequences in change… If the Open hadn’t taken place, there was the risk that Australia might lose its right to host a Grand Slam tournament in the future. Now wasn’t that a reason (potential burning platform) for Craig Tiley to be determined in making it happen? On the other hand, the tennis players have already stated that if the same quarantine conditions prevail next year, many won’t come back. Regardless of whether it is a compliance change or not, “Every action has an equal but opposite reaction”. Be sure to think through and anticipate every possible reaction/consequence.

And finally, not really a lesson, but more an observation, just as what happens in change, the tournament is over and everyone is already moving onto the next ‘thing.’ Soon, for most, it will be just a memory, but for a few, maybe a change ‘injury’ will remain that could surface again in the future. Are you ready for the next change being served to you?