What’s in the package, Dave? Thinking outside the box…

I spent an hour and a half yesterday listening to Lionel Birnie and Richard Moore interviewing Dave Brailsford. The two main topics were TUEs/Corticosteroids/Tramadol (related to Fancy Bear(s) and the JTL accusations) and the contents of the medical package delivered by hand to Wiggins at the end of the 2011 Dauphiné Libéré by Simon Cope. Here I’m going to focus not on facts but on their presentation, and what Brailsford’s language betrays about thinking at British Cycling and Team Sky. This is probably sensible, since on actual medication, doping and the contents of that jiffy bag Brailsford said almost nothing. That he spent over an hour doing so is relevant in itself, as we shall see.

There were two main elements to Brailsford’s narrative, regardless of the efforts of the interviewers to ascertain facts:

  1. Brailsford took personal responsibility for what he regards as a Public Relations failure; and
  2. he takes no responsibility for any possible failings in regard to Anti-Doping that may or any not have occurred. 

Leaving aside the question of whether Sky or BC have been implicated in the misuse of medication for sporting enhancement, it is notable that in his narrative there is a clear boundary between what is outside the sporting arena (whether legal or not) and how it is presented. This is congruent with the view of sport as a goal-driven activity: a medal factory where the extent to which a practice is permitted is judged only in relation to its success. In such a world the use of medication is governed by what is permitted and might enable a competitor to perform at their best. Outside this box lies the world of how a team would like to be seen, and the world presented by Brailsford was one in which the following words were repeated knowingly and frequently:

  1. Trust
  2. Rules
  3. Authority
  4. Clean
  5. Openness

Within the first minutes of the interview, given the opportunity to tell us how Sky have lived up to their initial mission (to win the Tour clean with a British rider; to do so without employing those with connections to doping) Brailsford claims that they have been consistent in applying their values but have learnt from mistakes. His description of their behaviour, however is at considerable variance with this. Sky employed an ex-doping doctor and many tainted team staff (only to ditch them later); and they sought to do everything within the rules to maximise performance. The only part of their behaviour which is coherent with their initial mission is the outcome: all else has been a moveable feast. Brailsford continually apologises for being too open with the press, leading to a lack of control over the narrative, but nowhere apologises for the approach Sky have taken to the use of corticosteroids or tramadol (whether as extensive as the interviewers suspect or he will admit). All these medical decisions were made and confirmed by experts employed by the team and the authorities: he simply trusted these actors to be correct. The gap between his view of sporting governance and sporting doctors and the reality exposed by scandal after scandal in amateur and professional sport is enormous.

In order to understand why Brailsford (and the paraphernalia of Sky and BC) display such a dissonant narrative a diversion into organisational theory is helpful. I don’t want to oversell this approach: Brailsford could have constructed this narrative of subservience to authority simply to get out of telling us what was in the package, but there is nothing much new here in his approach, it follows a familiar pattern. 

I’ve sat through many dull days listening to management and leadership educators telling me about the theories of Argyris and Schön, and I won’t bore you with detail. Moreover, I am not an expert in organisational psychology, more of an end-user. However, the gap between behavior and narrative we see here is characteristic of an organisational malaise which is rather well captured by their thinking. Brailsford’s narrative here represents Sky’s “espoused theory”: a set of beliefs which are presented as governing values. These differ from the implicit theories or “theory in use” that govern actual behaviour. Such a gap is common in organisations which exhibit what Argyris and Schön call “single loop” or Model I learning/behaviour: learning that only reflects on behavior rather than the contexts for that behaviour. Model II or “double loop” learning steps outside current thinking and is able to consider higher level solutions. 

To illustrate the trouble single loop learning can get you into Sky are a perfect case: the theory in use is one in which success is valued regardless (British Tour de France victories achieved) and all efforts and practices are permitted as long as they are considered by the authorities to be within the rules. This is not the same as a win at all costs approach,  but it is not necessarily compatible with being “clean” as competitors, staff and regulators often cheat or manipulate the system in a goal driven culture. If there is a gap between the goal and its acievability a Model I approach will never question the obvious source of this gap: the lack of an obvious British Tour contender. Everything else follows on from this error. A Model II approach might have responded to Wiggins 2010 disappointments by maintaining a “clean” approach and resetting goals, instead Sky employed a set of experienced old school staffers, focusing on psychological and physiological preparation. Regardless of questions around their espoused ethical stance and their practices, this approach was catastrophically tested in 2011, when Wiggins crashed out of the Tour. The attempt by Sky later that year also demonstrated the single loop: Wiggins was favoured in the Vuelta despite the clearly better performing Froome; all focus was on the rider destined to be the first British Tour winner until well after it became clear that Froome was the stronger rider. There are, admittedly elements of double loop here: the readjustment of goals from Tour to Vuelta, for example. But these were always tactical, never impinging on the strategic objective.

Compare the approach of Brailsford at Sky with Vaughters at Slipstream: the lesson Vaughters learnt from USPS (and Millar at Cofidis) was that a singular focus on performance was not conducive to incentivising an ethical culture. Instead of winning clean, the new value hierarchy was to compete clean and celebrate wins where they occurred. Although this goal has not always been clearly exhibited by Vaughters’ team it enabled the team to employ staff and riders with histories of doping without creating an environment in which this knowledge would need to be deployed to bridge a gap between  aspiration and reality.

To finish, do go and read this piece summarising the theories I touch on here, especially the characterisation of Model I and II approaches. The Sky approach is not entirely Model I, but where it fits it explains how they have reached such a dissonant and unhealthy pass.

I realise, to mix metaphors, that there is a huge elephant in this room. But I can’t tell you what Wiggins was sent just before travelling to a final altitude training camp. Nor can I tell you how much corticosteroid or tramadol use there was out of competition at Sky by riders on that team. On the basis of the interview it is entirely plausible that Brailsford may not be able to answer these questions, although this seems hard to believe and even harder to accept. What we do know is that there was a TUE granted in 2011 for a powerful drug that most experts seem to regard as performance enhancing and medically excessive drug at just the optimum time for its non-medical use. Whether Froome or Wiggins are “clean” British winners remains to be seen, but the culture of their team could certainly do with some more honest and open critique from within.

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One Response to What’s in the package, Dave? Thinking outside the box…

  1. I find myself compelled to give Sky every benefit of every doubt but you sum up the tangled web they find themselves in well.

    The Brailsford interview on The Cycling Podcast was infuriating because of the narrative loop that he kept falling back on – you could hear the frustration growing in the interviewers. Most of us are now such voracious consumers of ‘news’ and ‘media’ that we’re tuned in to the tactics and semantics of media trained interviewees. Whatever the truth of all this,

    Brailsford left me feeling uncomfortable.

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