Over the last few days, you may have been forgiven for thinking that a world order has just ended. The British written press have covered the shocking revelation on its front, back and middle pages, and the radio and TV stations have been exploring the reasoning and the consequences from every angle. The world order that has changed is that, after 26 years, Sir Alex Ferguson is hanging up his hairdryer at Manchester United and retiring.
It is worth reflecting on why this single action of one man moving on has been so newsworthy, and looking at whether there is anything that we can learn.
Football engenders an almost tribal mentality, but if we look beyond that, what can we learn from ‘the Ferguson way’? Was it really Sir Alex Ferguson that brought success to Manchester United, or was it something else?
In the early 1990s, I was present at an event where Alex Ferguson gave his views on success, via the then newish technology of satellite TV. I can’t remember all the details, but the context has stayed with me. Success, he suggested, was only possible when people work together with a common, shared and consistent vision and purpose.
What he said was not new, many had said such things before, and many state them today. It is almost a fact of common wisdom held to be true by just about all. Why is it then that most of British industry (and football clubs) fail to absorb and use this wisdom?
W Edwards Deming promoted this wisdom in his 1982 book Out of the Crisis, a summary of his experiences up to that time. Deming identified a number of critical characteristics that differentiated a successful business from one that was doomed to fail. I immediately drew a parallel to a number of these when hearing that Sir Alex, the most successful manager in club football, was moving on.
Specifically, I was reminded of Deming’s ideas about viewing the business as a system and a combination of the seven deadly diseases of management. The first deadly disease that came to mind was lack of constancy of purpose. In essence, companies responding to immediate bits of data and changing strategies and objectives on a whim or out of fear. How many football clubs change on the basis of one or two results? The second disease I thought of was short-term thinking, the opposite to constancy of purpose. This is the drive to do something now, irrespective of the long-term effects on the business or society. It is driven by fear or greed. How many clubs change managers just because they can?
Then the key for me was the idea of viewing the business as a system. The recognition that success comes from understanding why the system exists, setting the long-term objectives and creating a system that will deliver these.
Consider some footballing comparisons.
Blackburn Rovers, one of only five clubs to have won the Premier League, have had three managers in one season, and are now in the second tier of football in this country.
Or Wolverhampton Wanderers and Coventry City, both former Premier League teams, whose very existence today is in peril, have managed to have five managers since 2012 (the latter in just one season).
Crewe Alexandra’s Dario Gradi is the longest-serving manager in the English League and is still a director and holding steady influence. He created a system that this season enabled Crewe to field a team consisting of entirely home grown talent.
And finally, how about Chelsea and Manchester City, would these clubs prosper sustainably without the support of a benefactor?
Sir Alex was, in my mind, fortunate that he worked for enlightened individuals, who understood that winning on the pitch was the product that people wanted and that being associated with winning brought loyalty, profit and a sustainable business. They helped create the Manchester United system. He was indeed a lucky man.
Football, like all businesses could learn much from Deming.
And as for Ferguson, lucky or genius? Well, even geniuses need a little bit of luck.
Des Kelly, Director Consultant, Head of Open Learning, PMI
16 May 2013