October 1, 2015, by Academic contributor

It’s a funny old game

Nou CampFootball’s elevation to the status of universal language never ceases to amaze. The beautiful game is nowadays a conversation-starter nonpareil almost anywhere in the world. Consider the experience of a friend who recently visited a Buddhist temple in Thailand.

Keen to engage in a vaguely spiritual discussion, he asked a monk about the former abbots whose portraits dotted the wat. The monk was unfailingly polite but appeared largely unmoved by the exchange. Questions about Buddhism’s importance in a country ruled by a military junta proved similarly uninspiring.

Only when the friend mentioned he was from England did the hitherto serene bhikkhu dramatically burst into life. “Ah!” he exclaimed, as if bodhi had suddenly been attained. “Chelsea!” A lengthy chat about the likely destination of the Premiership title ensued.

It says a lot when even a member of a mendicant order can end up supporting a team of multi-millionaires bankrolled by a Russian oligarch. Such are the near-irresistible thrills and spills of a sport that revels in heroism and ephemeral success. Whoever we are, wherever we might be, we share a common bond: we like to see our team win.

If there’s one thing the business world can learn from football, though, it’s that the winner-takes-all model is seldom sustainable. If anything, it’s extraordinarily wasteful – principally because all notions of pragmatism are cast to the wind amid a frenzy of short-term thinking.

In football, as in literature and cinema, short-termism tends to involve the assembling of a band of heroes – frequently at vast expense – whose purpose is clearly defined. For “bring back the Golden Fleece” or “save the village from marauding bandits” read “nick the fourth Champions League spot” or “avoid relegation”.

And it’s a mark of short-termism that sometimes, when the going gets tough, heads drop and panic sets in. Players start asking for transfers. It’s every man for himself. The manager is sacked, leaving his successor to throw together a new team from a ragbag of remnants and mercenaries. Cue an extravagant shambles.

Even short-term success is self-evidently fleeting. The Abramovich era has seen Chelsea earn plenty of silverware under a succession of managers – but at tremendous cost. Given that it depends on the largesse and vanity of someone extraordinarily rich, it’s hard to predict how long such a pattern can endure.

At first glance the Manchester United of the Ferguson era might seem to embody certain classically heroic qualities, with Sir Alex and his players cast as King Arthur and his knights or Charlemagne and his paladins. Yet it was a healthy long-termism, above all, that characterised Ferguson’s reign.

Intriguingly enough, legend has it that even Fergie once stood on the brink of being given his marching orders. Had United lost their FA Cup third-round match to Nottingham Forest in 1990, so the story goes, he would have been on his way. Fellow Old Trafford icon Sir Bobby Charlton vehemently denied this tale in the wake of Ferguson’s retirement, insisting: “There was not a thought about the future of Alex at this club. We knew we had the right man.”

It was easy for him to say that by then, you might think, bearing in mind that United won 1-0 and went on to lift the trophy – not to mention all the others that followed. But if the members of the hierarchy were genuinely intent on standing by Ferguson in any event then we should commend their commitment to sustainability and stability.

This brings us to the wonders of the Manager of the Month award. In a world increasingly driven by metrics, surely there’s no finer illustration of the perils of misinterpreted statistics.

Every month the award is presented to the manager adjudged to have performed the best. Usually he doesn’t do so well the next month. Confusion over temporal and causal relationships leads some to attribute the subsequent drop in form to the winning of the award – the so-called “curse of the Manager of the Month”.

But the award is for exceptional performance, and it’s not possible to be consistently exceptional. It’s possible to be exceptionally consistent, whether good, average or poor, but if the performance itself is consistently any of these then it’s no longer exceptional. Exceptional performance, good or bad, always regresses to the mean.

Like victory in cup competitions, this underlines the harsh truth that any great present success very often precedes a less great future. This isn’t to deny the significance of ambition, competition, stretch goals, continual improvement and all the rest, but it seems reasonable to suggest that those steely souls who insist second place is just “first of the losers” are doomed to almost perpetual disappointment.

Perhaps we should note the sage observation of the much-travelled Dave Bassett, ex of Wimbledon, Watford, Sheffield United, Crystal Palace, Nottingham Forest, Barnsley, Leicester City and Southampton. When he was presented with an award commemorating a thousand matches as a manager he remarked that he had never once been able to field the team he had wanted – he had always had to work with what he had at his disposal.

To be fair, there are plenty of fans who appreciate this. It’s the owners and wanna-be Alexander the Greats who are prone to throwing their toys out of the pram, which is why so much of football now exists in an age of revolving-door transfer policies, damaging wage schisms and a managerial merry-go-round that spins ever more insanely.

Of course, none of this really matters. It’s only a game, isn’t it? It’s not anything serious, like business or commerce or even education or health. In the “real world” such behaviour would be manifestly ridiculous. Nobody would run companies, schools or hospitals like that, would they?

Would they?

Paul Kirkham is a researcher in the field of entrepreneurial creativity with Nottingham University Business School and co-deviser of the Ingenuity problem-solving process taught to students at its Haydn Green Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (HGI).

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