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What your organisation can learn from the World Cup

Jul 25, 2010 Strategy, Sunday Nation

I suffer from an affliction. Having spent the better part of my life studying management and organisations, I am unable to switch that part of my brain off. Even when I am enjoying myself on holiday, I find myself observing the processes, systems, leadership and strategies that underlie the excellent (or dire) experience I am having. And so, while I was whooping and leaping during the recent FIFA World Cup, a part of my mind was engaged on the vexed question of what underlies international footballing success and failure.

This Sunday I am about to inflict my affliction on you – but with good intentions. There are lessons to be applied to our own organisations, large and small, from observing football teams.

A minor observation first: European teams largely have local coaches and foreign-born players these days (Germany’s eye-catching players were called Ozil, Khedira, Boateng); South American teams have local coaches and local players; and African teams have foreign coaches and local players. The team that finally won, Spain, had a local coach and local players.

Success, I often say, is largely linked to spirit: those organisations that can generate great enthusiasm and ‘buzz’ in their people generally excel. In the World Cup, host South Africa had a whole nation (and continent) behind them; they were playing for the higher cause of putting Africa on the map; they were in the grips of a vuvuzela-driven frenzy. Could they go all the way? Not at all. In the group match against Uruguay, the SA team sang their national anthem in the tunnel before the game, to whip up their spirit and dishearten their opponents. Those opponents then comprehensively thrashed them 3-0. SA became the first host nation in World Cup history to not get past the group stages.

So spirit alone can’t do it. What SA lacked, patently, was footballing talent and expertise. Argentina had more talent on paper than any other team, and were led by the iconic Diego Maradona who hugged and kissed every member of his squad and thumped his patriotic chest at every press conference. But he was undone by superior tactics by the Germans, and left scratching his new beard in disbelief.

So is that the vital ingredient? Consider the immensely talented French team, whose stars excel in club teams across Europe. They suffered perhaps the greatest humiliation of all, their tournament imploding amidst internal strife, accusations and ego-mania. They were whipped by minor opponents and left to go home and face national outrage at their antics. So talent and skills alone do not take you anywhere: leadership and unity of purpose is also needed.

England appeared to have that. They had one of the world’s highest-rated coaches (certainly the highest-paid) in Fabio Capello, and four or five top-rated players. They also seemed to possess great unity and commitment. Yet they failed to string a pass together and went home humiliated by Germany. What was evident on the pitch was that England’s star players are reduced to nonentities when playing a different system and surrounded by mediocre support players.

Germany seemed to have it all: youthful zest and enthusiasm; an adventurous new system of play; a thoughtful and popular coach; and bags of fresh footballing talent. They stormed the tourney early on, seeing off England and thrashing the top-rated Argentina. But they too were undone in turn by eventual victors Spain, when their inexperience and naivete were on painful display.

So what do we learn, people? Why did Spain win, and why did so many thoughtful pundits think they would? Despite a stuttering start, Spain actually possessed all the necessary ingredients for organisational success. They had a strong ethos; a winning and familiar system (“tiki-taka” – quick passing and movement); outstanding talent; and very good leadership at all levels.

So ask yourself this, as you consider your own organisation: do you possess the four key drivers of organisational success? Is your ethos strong enough – do people have a higher cause that gives them great energy and drive, and the resilience to weather reversals of fortune? Do you have your ‘groove’ – an established strategy, tried-and-tested systems – or are you always experimenting and reinventing yourself? Do you have sufficient talent on board – is there a core group of employees who are amongst the best in your industry? And finally, look at the leadership: are there leaders present who can show the way, demonstrate a vision and set a vibrant example?

If you have those things, you are on your way. If a key factor is missing, you will struggle. Africa, for all the hullabaloo that preceded the first world cup tournament on its soil, stood still. It has still never sent a team past the quarterfinals; and those who have reached that milestone in the past have generally gone backwards. African teams have great talent (we see it displayed in Europe all the time), but they have yet to develop a united ethos, inspirational leadership and a consistent and proven playing style. With three out of four ingredients missing, we still have some way to go.

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