Cracking the Code Book Review

Cracking The Code
By Paul Azinger and Dr. Ron Braund

In this Ryder Cup year, it is timely that 2008 US Captain Paul Azinger has released a book detailing his successful team management approach. The “Pods” system that Azinger used has been much discussed and written about, but it’s only in this book that the full story is told.

The US Ryder Cup team, as you will recall, had been through a bit of a drought, having lost three in a row, and eight of the last eleven competitions. (You can thank Jack Nicklaus for that; it was his suggestion that the traditional British team be expanded to include all of Europe). While reasons for the European dominance have never been quite clear, it had long been the suspicion that they were better able to gel as a team than the Americans. (I’m not sure I buy that logic, though).

Operating under the assumption that a lack of Team Spirit was the reason for the losses, Azinger decided to try a novel approach. He was inspired by a television program that he had seen about Navy Seals. The Seals—and indeed other military units—operate not as division, brigades and companies, but in fire teams. Those are small groups of soldiers who eat, sleep, and train together, bonding into small “bands of brothers.” (It’s the same approach used by any number of organizations. The Boy Scouts have the “Patrol Method,” teachers have Professional Learning Communities, etc.).

Azinger’s final distillation of the idea was to forget about forging a 12 man team on short notice. Instead, he would try to build three four-man teams. But there really wasn’t even time for that. So he took a shortcut. With the help of Dr. Ron Braund, Azinger tried to group his players by “personality type.” The theory was that they would bond more quickly if they already were similar. It was a radical approach, in that in the past, Ryder Cup Captains had tried to group players based on playing skills.

The “Pods,” as Azinger called them, would practice and play together, and the groups would never be broken. Every round the players competed would be within their Pod. Even when they went out in singles matches on Sunday, the players went out in groups of four according to their Pods; not, as others Captains have done, in an arrangement based on strong players, or experience or some other criteria.

One final key to Azinger’s Pods—which had not been revealed before the publication of the book—was that the four “Captain’s Picks” that year actually were chosen by the original three members of each pod. After dividing the nine qualifying players into their pods, he gave them a list of players to choose as the fourth member of the group. The Captain’s Picks then knew that they were wanted by the Pod members, and the original Pod members had a say in the way things would go.

Treating the players like professionals and giving them major input into the decisions was another hallmark of Azinger’s tenure. He was absolutely right about in thinking that leaders who create small working groups must trust them to make the correct decisions. Axinger avoided telling the players what to do (with one exception that had poor results), trusting that he had created an good environment in which their skills and professionalism would produce good results.

That’s one bit of advice the leadership of my building and school system have yet to learn. Their idea of small group dynamics (Professional Learning Communities) is to order the teachers into groups and then dictate what the goals, procedures and outcomes will be. And if the PLC outcomes don’t quite match management’s preordained notions, the teachers are sent back to work until they “get it right.” We actually have spent months working on curriculum or testing criteria only to be told at the end that “it’s not what we’re looking for.” Then when we ask what it is they’re looking for, we’re told “this is a teacher led community. You need to develop this on your own.” They’re idiots.

But I digress.

Cracking the Code is not a blow-by-blow of the 2008 Ryder Cup. That book has yet to be written. But Azinger does take the reader through key moments to illustrate how the Pods system worked in practice.

I found Cracking the Code to be a very interesting book and a very quick read. While I’m not entirely convinced (as many are) that Azinger’s system is entirely (or even mostly) responsible for the 2008 US success, it is a very interesting case study in management. In that, I think it could find its way into the hands of many group managers.




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