istock_overheadkickWhen England won the rugby world cup in 2003, it was the culmination of six years of driven effort by the coach, Clive (now Sir Clive) Woodward and his squad. The team’s victory had built on a steady improvement in the performance of the team, and it seemed that English rugby would finally dominate the game for a decade or more.

However, it didn’t work out that way. Key players retired, the coaching staff changed and the mix of skill, determination and teamwork that had characterised the team’s success seemed to simply melt away. In fact, the last-minute drop goal from Jonny Wilkinson’s that defeated Australia signalled the decline of the England team as much as it defined the team’s greatest victory.

Contrast the English rugby team with the country’s leading soccer team, Manchester United. The manager, Alex (now Sir Alex) Ferguson has led the team since 1986, unprecedented in the modern professional game where the average tenure of a football manager is a couple of years. At the time of writing, Ferguson has led the club to two UEFA Champions’ League titles, 11 Premier League victories, five FA Cup triumphs and 16 other recognised titles and honours.

Where the English rugby team were able to climb the mountain once, before quickly returning to base camp, Manchester United have managed to stay at high altitude and repeat their success year after year.

I see the same differences in the business organisations I work with. Some, like the English rugby team, are able to achieve a certain level of success but simply cannot sustain it and quickly return to the pack of competitors that are pursuing them. A critical few, however, seem able to use their success as a launch pad for further growth, rather than as the end of their mission.

But what makes the difference between those businesses that are like shooting stars, shining brightly for a moment before disappearing from view, from those true stars that shine brightly every night?

There are many great business books that define what makes companies achieve breakthrough levels of performance – for example, In Search of Excellence by Tom Peters and Bob Waterman and Good To Great by Jim Collins. As we shall see, however, many of the companies quoted in these books subsequently fall from the pedestals on which they’ve been placed.

Massive differentiation and operating excellence – two critical drivers of success – are only relevant at a point in time. There is a third factor that is often overlooked by managers and writers alike, and that is agility. An organisation’s ability to periodically reinvent itself and to find new ways to grow is the missing link between companies that can achieve high levels of performance for a brief time and those that dominate their markets for sustained periods.

But even where writers recognise the importance of agility, there is precious little practical guidance as to how business leaders can take pragmatic steps to drive their company’s ongoing success.

We need to remove the mystery out of how to create a high-performing and agile business, and give our leaders practical tools and approaches to help them sustain performance. Agility, on its own, will not create success, but without it your performance will wane and decline.

Which sports team is your business most like – the England rugby team or Manchester United?

© Stuart Cross 2010. All rights reserved.