Tolerating Variation, and Other Lessons from the Australian Cricket Team

Last week, four top-tier players were dropped from the Australian cricket team. They didn’t stay out late, or drink alcohol, or cause criminal damage. They failed to provide their coach with three dot points about how the team could improve after their disastrous defeat in Hyderabad, on tour in India.

The reaction in Australia and internationally was electric. Former luminaries of Australian cricket called it a joke, suggesting that winning cricket matches wasn’t about doing ‘homework’. As an Aussie cricket fan, I’m less concerned about whether the punishment was appropriate than I am about how it came to this in the first place.

The performance of the Australian cricket team has been in decline for years. We lost the Ashes in 2005, and have only won them back once since (after winning the series eight times straight before 2005). Our Test team has crashed from number one in the world to third, and likely to slide further if performances keep going the way they are.

One of the causes of the decay has been the retirement of a crop of extraordinary players, which suggests succession planning hasn’t been great in the team. But let’s move past that, to the situation the team faces now: poor performance, over a lengthy period, to the point where a line had to be drawn in the sand over the submission of some dot points to the coach about how the team could improve. So: how did it come to this?

To my mind, it speaks of a failure of team management to be insistent, consistent and persistent. Had team management been insistent, consistent and persistent, they would have found it unnecessary to enforce such drastic punishment for failing to complete what everyone admits is a fairly trivial task that has more to do with the attitude of the team members than it does with their performance on the field. It’s about being tolerant of variation, and inconsistent in addressing it.

Here are a few pressure points you might like to consider in your own business, when deciding how tolerant you will be of variation, and how consistent you will be in dealing with it when it occurs. For each pressure point, I’ve included an example I’ve come across in my career—if you hear something similar in your own organisation, I suggest you jump on it and remedy it as soon as possible.

Recruitment and Selection

Even when an organisation has a formal selection policy and/or a competency development framework, it’s all too easy for the selection process to be built upon totally different principles. Instead of doing the hard work of building an effective behavioural event interview questionnaire, selection comes down to opinion and speculation. In such a situation, “I think she’d be great in the role” trumps “she was able to clearly demonstrate how she met our specific requirements for this role”.

At one organisation I worked for, the informal graduate intake selection criteria were summed up quite succinctly by the interviewer as we had a chat at lunch. “They need to be able to think—but not too much. We can’t have people who think independently or we might start getting ideas floating around about how we could do things differently. That would be a disaster. What we need is people who just do as they’re told.”


Induction programmes are meant to build a shared sense of purpose—a shared understanding of how things are done in an organisation. They are also critical in teaching new hires how to do their job, especially when their role is technical in nature or involves performing tasks to specification.

It is an induction that sets the very first standard of expected behaviour for new employees. On my first day in a new job, the IT Manager came over to give me a copy of the company IT policy to sign. It ran to twenty pages. “It’s a lot to read, but frankly, you don’t need to bother,” he said. “We never check anything, and probably never will.”


Lots of businesses use a probation programme which starts with induction and which, theoretically, ends with the business making a decision about whether the new hire is the right fit for the organisation. Often, this is merely a formality, and few, if any employees, are let go at the end of their probation period.

A business unit manager once confided in me that most of his hires were young, in their late teens or early twenties, and that he couldn’t bring himself to fire any of them at the end of probation. “Whatever they don’t learn in the first three months, they’ll pick up on the job eventually,” he said.

Coaching and Counselling

When poor performance or poor behaviour occurs, by far the easiest and most effective way to correct it is to start early and honestly:

  • Educate those learning a new skill.
  • Encourage people responding to a setback.
  • Sponsor high performers in danger of becoming bored.
  • Counsel people with poor performance who have not yet had an opportunity to address it.
  • Confront poor performers who have had an opportunity to remedy their performance and failed.

At one organisation where I worked, a highly-skilled but temperamental engineer would regularly badmouth other employees and management, and then refuse to work on things he thought beneath him. When he quit in a huff over being asked to do something he regarded as menial, it was only two weeks before he was hired back on a 20% pay rise—because there was nobody else who could do the same work.

The Consequences

Tolerating variation in recruitment and selection means you will hire a lot of staff whose skills, attitudes and behavioural traits don’t match those required for the job. Even if they are able to adapt, it will be an expensive, time-consuming process.

Tolerating variation in induction leads to new hires being trained in a variety of different ways, and probably to a variety of different standards. That variation will make it much harder to maintain any targeted level of service later on.

Tolerating variation in probation means you will end up with dud employees on the books—the ones who suck up time and money without delivering anything of value to your organisation. And once you’ve got them, it can be difficult to justify getting rid of them.

Tolerating variation in the coaching and counselling of your employees will lead to variable performance. It will also lead to a race to the lowest common denominator, as poor behaviour becomes accepted and those that engage in poor behaviour are not counselled or confronted.

The consequences of tolerating variation are far-reaching, and the effects on your organisation will be chronic. So next time you see that variation occurring in your business, ask yourself—can you afford to let it slide? Whether they recognise it or not, the Australian cricket team has been doing it for the last few years, and you can see where it’s got them.

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