What World Cup winner Germany can teach us about developing a culture of excellence

brazil vs germany world cup 2014

Picture: EPA

The 2014 World Cup has ended! For me it was one of the most memorable, the first round alone is worth watching again. Anyway, the Germans won. And they have lots to teach us about developing a culture of excellence, no matter what people say about their “efficient” driven culture.

Here are a two takeaways:

To play to win, not to lose, requires a different mindset

Two weeks ago I watched as Mexico gave up a 1 goal lead to the Netherlands and eventually lose the game on a questionable penalty kick. As all of this was unraveling I wasn’t surprised. I had started watching the game at the 60 minute mark, but I could tell Netherlands was going to even things out, and maybe even win the game.

I knew because they were the aggressors. Mexico was sitting back, playing not to lose. But this isn’t an isolated incident, Mexico has a history of letting up. It doesn’t have anything to do with strategy and tactics, but with, I believe, psychological and cultural issue.

I believe that conformity is the enemy of greatness. There are other countries in this World Cup who are exemplary of how defeating conformity is less a matter of strategy and more about mindset.

In the semifinal, the unthinkable happened: Germany humiliated Brazil, the host team, 7 -1.

And it could’ve been worse had it not been for some balls that got kicked out of bounds, and passes that didn’t hit their mark. After Germany scored the second goal I told the folks I was watching the game with that they were going to score three more by the end of the first half. Ten minutes later, 3 more goals were scored.

No, I wasn’t making a prediction. Rather, I was seeing the whole thing unravel. I could see how the first two goals shocked and broke Brazil’s spirit. Even after scoring 5 goals in the first half, Germany didn’t back off the accelerator in the second half; playing to win until the final second.

Relentlessness is what it takes to win. When you set the tone early and impose your will, good things usually happen. You control the dynamic, forcing others to react to what you are doing. Contrary to what Mexico did in their game against Netherlands, Germany kept being the aggressor the whole game; it’s also what innovators do.

A few lessons:

  • Cultivate mental discipline to stay focused. Innovators overcome the can’ts. The can’ts are all the physical and mental limitations that we place on ourselves, that blind us from alternatives that may lead to better outcomes. When we overcome the human condition, we play to win. When we play not to lose means it usually means we are very confident, hubris, which often leads to failure. As we start to encounter problems, we get defensive and fall back on old habits. Playing not to lose is what large organizations with established business models do. Innovators play to win, no matter the situation.
  • It’s not over until the fat lady sings. You have to fight until the end. Germany was still creating opportunities to score against Argentina until the last minute of overtime.

I’ve always said that innovation is as much about mindset and attitude than it is about process. And there is a reason why there is a direct correlation between leadership and innovation: Leadership pushes boundaries, physical and mental, to make change happen. Management tries to keep things under control.

Key takeaway: As innovators, our main challenge is to overcome the human condition that tells us to “let up” and play defense. Overcome the feeling that “we’ve made it”. Actually, we’ll never make it. Innovation is constant, there will always be the next challenge. We always have to be on the attack, making changes as we see necessary and readjusting our strategy on the fly; knowing that our consistent activity will eventually lead us to a breakthrough.

You can’t copy culture

A culture of excellence is consistent. A paragraph on the Atlantic summed it up nicely:

The TVs in the bar where I watched the World Cup final weren’t small, but they weren’t large either. The picture was passably crisp, but in some of the wide-angle shots, it was slightly challenging to identify the individual players beyond their blue or white allegiances. The Argentinians, though, were easy to pick out even through the mild pixelation: There was Messi, pacing languidly in the midfield as he conserved his energy for another blistering run down the flank; there was Palacio, with his rat-tail hair strand dangling in his wake. It wasn’t so easy with the Germans, though. In their posture and their attitude, they looked nearly identical.

That’s when it crystallized for me exactly why I liked them as a team. It’d be silly to say Germany doesn’t have an immense amount of talent on a per-player basis, but this afternoon it felt like you could have swapped the positions of any two players on the field (or rather, on that mildly blurry screen) and the team’s basic force and structure would have remained intact.

That’s why culture matters. It’s the reason fast food joints like McDonald’s, Burger King and Carl’s Jr. can swap employees with each other on command; they all operate the same way. The only thing that would change is the name of the meals!

Key takeaway: People are the most important differentiator. After the collapse of it’s soccer team in the early 2000’s, Germany decided to reinvent its team by developing talent from within their leagues. This created a pipeline of “talent without end” that consistently positions the team with opportunities to win. Companies are usually focused on hiring talent, but very rarely do they develop it from within.