David Galler’s Blog: “Genko Tree”

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We are deep into winter and in my garden the Genko tree has finally let go of all of its leaves. This the most stubborn of trees, only relents long after all its deciduous mates, and always in the middle of the annual rugby extravaganza, whether it be the All Blacks playing the Aussies and the Springboks, or as has just finished now, against a northern hemisphere team, this year Wales.

To be honest, I am a fair weather rugby fan – I occasionally go when it’s not raining, but more often I’ll be watching from the comfort of someone else’s lounge with a group of rowdy friends. I usually like it when we win and see losses as an omen of things to come.

Having watched dozens and dozens of test matches over the years, I now think of myself as a minor scholar of the game; having played it once upon a time, one year, famously moving from the dangerous position of hooker in a social team to a daring role as full back for the Wellington College first fifteen and subsequently a Victoria University team. I eventually gave up when I realised that every time I got the ball, there were 15 people from the other side trying to kill me.

By that time I had learned to read the game and see in it many things that have helped me in my subsequent career in healthcare. Perhaps the most stunning example of that was from what happened in that famous Bledisloe Cup match between the All Blacks and Australia in Sydney, in1994. You remember the one, when in the last minute of the game, Jeff Wilson, the All Black wing, dived over in the corner for what would have been a remarkable come from behind last gasp victory if not for the tackle of George Gregan, the Wallabies halfback, who dislodged the ball from Wilson’s arms as he crossed the line.

Fast forward to Jongkoping County in Sweden 17 years later to a time when I was visiting my good friend Goran Henriks, head of healthcare innovation for Jongkoping (phonetically: Yonchirping) in Sweden. On all measures, and there are a lot, spanning activity from the home to the hospital, Jongkoping County has been the best performing county in Sweden and arguably one of the best health systems in the world; and every year they seem to get better.

Goran and I were out for dinner one evening when I told him about that famous test match and its relevance to healthcare improvement. This is the story.

I remembered it as the last match in the Bledisloe Cup series of 1994 and the last test match for the coach Laurie Mains, a former All Black himself. Things went badly wrong for the ABs right from the kick off with Tim Horan, the Wallabies’ centre, scoring a try in the first minute. As the first half progressed so too did the score against us mount. The Wallabies, on a roll, and the All Blacks dour, unimaginative and out-played, went to the half time break, Australia 20 – NZ 0.

The second half was a different affair, as different as day and night and black and white. The All Blacks, who in the first half seemed to be physically weighed down and completely unable to adjust and adapt to counter the Wallabies’ onslaught, did just that. Seemingly now unburdened, agile and confident, with nothing to lose and everything to play for, they displayed a form of daring and running rugby that we have now come to expect every time.

Well, back then in 1994, we were all on the edge of our seats as we ran in tries and scored penalties, only to have a last minute victory denied by that brilliant tackle by George Gregan knocking the ball loose from Jeff Wilson’s arms as he dived over the try line. Perhaps that’s what most people will remember about that game but it came at the end of what must be one of the most remarkable reversals in form ever seen.

So, what happened at half time that led to such a dramatic improvement?

In short, here’s what I told Goran:

It was shockingly obvious to coach Laurie Mains, formerly a toe-hacking fullback and a conservative man by nature, that the approach the All Blacks took in the first half of the match was not working and that a fundamental change was needed if the match and their collective reputation was to be preserved. Maybe back then, in his heart, he knew what Paul Batalden has always been attributed as saying: “The system is perfectly designed to get the results it always gets”.

“Boys”, he said, “if we want to win (aka: agree and achieve our some by when goal) we need do something different; you know the rules of the game (aka: we work within a set of constraints – money, people, regulations, professional boundaries, etc.); you are the best we have, you have the skills and you trust and know each other well (teams of expert frontline staff doing their work everyday); back yourselves boys, go out and have some fun, go out and win”. Well they almost did.

This analogy between sport and healthcare improvement seemed to amuse Goran; an increasingly big smile spread across his handsome face as he told me that he was in fact the coach of the Swedish Men’s Basketball team.

A more gracious and wise man you will never meet. Goran Henriks is speaking at the APAC Forum in Sydney from September 12-14 apacforum.com. I know that he will be pleased to shoot some hoops with you , so register now and l will arrange for that to happen.

 – David Galler