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How to lead successful teams while managing change: Tips for the AFL

There’s been a lot of talk of change in AFL circles this year. The bosses long ago raised the prospect of introducing mid-season trading of players, already practised in other codes but resisted by the AFL old guard, and the push has been much stronger in the last 12 months.

The pro arguments are that freeing up player movement will allow lower-placed teams to rebuild and move up the ladder faster, and will let healthy players step in for injured ones – making the most of available talent and creating new opportunities for young players. The con is that teams which look competitive at the mid-season mark are likely to snaffle players from bottom-of the-ladder teams, which could make the second half of the season a lot less competitive (read: boring).

Either way, all signs point to change in 2019. As the 2018 season comes to an end, we Blue Seeders would like to offer the AFL a few handy tips to help them manage the shift and set up for a successful new year.

Pick your moment

On this one, AFL leaders are already on the front foot and we take our Blue Seed hats off to them. In spite of the momentum and drive to introduce mid-season trading, the league made the call in March of this year to hold off until 2019. This was because they recognised that an abrupt change on this scale needed proper planning and could potentially cause huge upheaval in the short term.

With the season over now, 2019 is rapidly approaching. If the league hasn’t started serious planning already, they may need to consider if it’s still too soon to make the change in the next 12 months. You only have one chance to get it right the first time.

Understand the fallout

Spending time on a deep dive, to explore the impacts of this change on everyone involved (individual players, teams, management, administrators, support staff, fans, etc.) would position the league to make smart decisions about the timing for the changes, and how they are rolled out.

This should be led by an independent team of change management specialists to make sure impacts are considered from every angle. Those at the top of the AFL leadership hierarchy are unlikely to understand what these changes really mean for players on the ground, for example. Both the benefits and the risks for all impacted groups should be considered and inform decision-making.

Communicate – with everyone

The AFL is doing the right thing by starting to soften the ground now for changes that are likely to land over the next year. In particular, the league’s communications are effectively stressing the benefits of greater flexibility to both individual players and teams.

At the same time, any change to a code like AFL is a hard sell. Real fans will react badly to anything that looks like it may disadvantage their teams, and Australians en masse will push back on anything that might cripple an already-limping underdog.

For the AFL, this means considering how the audience for communication needs to be broken down into different stakeholder groups and targeting messages specifically to each of these. What matters to a player is not always what matters to a trainer. What’s close to the heart of a seventy-year-old fan isn’t always a big deal to a twelve-year-old.

Learn as you go

With all good intentions, there’s always a chance that things will go wrong when you make a big change. For the AFL leadership, this means having a change plan in place that is flexible enough to respond to unforeseen issues.

For any league considering shifting its rules, one of the key considerations will be how to track sentiment – in other words, how do your fans feel about it? Like every other code, the AFL is constantly competing for attention and can’t overvalue the loyalty of its fans. Keeping a close eye on how mid-season trading is perceived by this group, and putting in place strategies to move sentiment in the right direction, could save the league a lot of pain.

AFL players are pretty good on the fancy footwork. If their leaders can keep treading carefully, this change could be a big win for the league. If they fumble it, there’ll be a lot of ground to win back.

Final thoughts? Change is for the brave.

In the words of the great Mick Malthouse who almost won the premiership: “The meek may inherit the earth – but they will never win games of football.”


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