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 is hanging up his hairdryer and moving on.
But, it is worth reflecting on why this single action of one man moving on has been so news worthy, and looking at whether there is anything that we can learn? The very nature of football and the almost tribal mentality it engenders means that there are many who dislike Sir Alex, not for who he is or what his values and ethics are, but for the fact he managed the enemy. If we can look beyond that dislike then what can we learn from “the Ferguson way”? Was it really Sir Alex Ferguson that brought success to Manchester United, or was it the something else?
In the early 1990’s 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) failed to absorb and use this wisdom?
W Edwards Deming was promoting 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 on the news that Sir Alex, the most successful manager in club football ever, was moving on.
More 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 the immediate bits of data and changing strategy 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 a system. The recognition that success comes from understanding why the system exists and 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. Wolverhampton Wanderers and Coventry City, who have managed to have five managers since 2012 (the latter in just one season), both former Premier League teams, whose very existence today is in peril.
Crewe Alexander’s Dario Gradi, the longest serving manager in the English League is still a director and holding steady influence, created a system that this season enabled Crewe to field a team consisting of entirely home grown talent.
And 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.
As for Ferguson – lucky or genius? Well, even geniuses need a little bit of luck.