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Roger Federer and the art of Agile

This article was published first in Brand Quarterly

Roger Federer is a hero in the world of tennis and is now unarguably the greatest Wimbledon champion of all time. He prevailed again this year with a characteristic and unparalleled mix of artistry, power, focus, and agility.

While Federer’s achievements remain largely confined to the sports pages, there’s much to be learnt from him about the successful design and implementation of Agile strategy. There are two dimensions in particular to Federer’s Agile approach.

Agile Play

Tennis is a game requiring constant adjustments and readjustments to a changing situation – turning a defensive position into an offensive one, turning what looks like a hopeless situation into a winning one. A player’s strategy has to evolve within a point, a game, a set and across the course of an entire match. The ‘game plan’ going into the match has to be constantly adjusted as the situation changes. We can see this in business, where startups and entrepreneurs are used to operating in environments where ‘test-learn-change’ is an ever-evolving process with no end point. And large corporations need similar flexibility and agility.

Agile Thinking

Agile thinking is just as important as Agile play. But Agile thought alone isn’t enough. A retired tennis player will often say: “I knew what I wanted to do, but my body couldn’t do it anymore”. What Roger Federer reminds us of is the importance of being able to effectively implement an Agile strategy. When he lost the 2016 Wimbledon semi-final due to injury, his goal – win more Grand Slams – didn’t change. But the strategy to deliver the goal needed to. So he took a long break to recover properly – the means by which the strategy would be implemented. This is Agile thinking in action.

The retired tennis player’s lament is very similar to the one of a failed strategic initiative: “I knew what I wanted to do, but the business wasn’t equipped to do it”. Agile strategy is needed, so changes can accommodate new realities and still deliver longer-term goals.

Rethink Necessary Capabilities

Agile thinking is also about constantly revisiting capabilities to achieve success as landscapes evolve – to head off previously unforeseen challenges and to realise new possibilities. For Federer, as new competitive challenges emerged (Nadal, Djokovic, then Murray), he needed to revisit and improve his core skills from an already high level of effectiveness.

Agile thinking is also necessary to ensure longevity. Economy of effort becomes more important, and so the playing strategy is evolved into one that seeks to make points shorter. Objectives are re-prioritised. Previously important goals (winning the French Open) are ruthlessly discarded, so they don’t conflict with higher goals that are more important and achievable (winning Wimbledon again).

For organisations, Agile strategy requires them to self-critically identify barriers that are stopping them from achieving major goals – even in the things they already do well.

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Strength Of Character

Successfully developing and implementing Agile thinking requires strength of character.  You need tremendously strong resolve when success seems elusive, and naysayers are vocal. If Federer had listened to his critics, he would probably have retired around 2013 rather than win two more Grand Slams four years later.

Being astute enough to understand that past achievements are no guarantee of future success in radically changed circumstances is important also. So too is having the humility to see the value of taking guidance from people with far lesser playing careers but, nevertheless, important skills. Enterprise leaders need resilience and self-belief – both to have confidence in their organisation’s abilities and in their own ability to make necessary changes.

Learnings For Business

So what can business and strategy learn from the great Roger Federer? Several important things as it turns out:

  • Strategy that’s Agile in design is essential to achieve success in the most challenging environments
  • Strategy must evolve as competitive landscapes change and intensify. Infrequent periodic change is not enough – ongoing, self-critical re-evaluation is what’s required
  • Elegantly designed strategy, which fails to recognise the constraints of the participant to implement, can never be effective
  • Technical skill, humility, and strength of character are essential pre-requisites for business leaders to successfully design and implement an agile strategy, which delivers sustained outperformance.

Roger Federer is without question the greatest Wimbledon champion of all time. And perhaps more surprisingly, he should be lauded as a great example of Agile strategy in action.

Alan Treadgold is a strategy expert at PA Consulting Group

Contact the strategy team

Andy Katz

Andy Katz

Alan Treadgold

Alan Treadgold

Cesare Gussago

Cesare Gussago

Paul Hamilton

Paul Hamilton

Thomas Bjørnstad

Thomas Bjørnstad


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