Five Things Business Leaders Can Learn From Football

Football, or soccer as Americans call it, is the Beautiful Game which is the closest to a lingua franca we humans have. It is by far the most popular sport in the world and has penetrated essentially every corner of the globe. Names like Messi, Ronaldo, Maradona and Pele are instantly recognized everywhere. The allure of football can be attributed to aspects of the game and many a great thinker and philosopher has pondered why football has such universal appeal.

The great French absurdist philosopher and writer Albert Camus once famously said, that ”all that I know most surely about morality and obligations I owe to football”. Football is certainly a great tutor of life. But there are some lessons a business leader can also take from football.

Cohesive Organizations Triumph

Football is, above all, a team sport. In football a single star player does not enjoy anywhere near the impact that Michael Jordan or Stephen Curry could wield on a basketball court. Actually, what matters more is the quality of the weakest link, as shown by Chris Anderson and David Sally in their fantastic book The Numbers Game. In football, a well-organized, cohesive unit often triumphs over their more chaotic adversaries. Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle of 1996-1997, the Entertainers, for all their attacking brilliance were beaten by the more organized Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United.

In football, one can view a team as a social network in which a pass from player to A to player B creates a link between them, much like e-mails create a link between two employees. In 2018 World Cup, teams whose passing networks were more tightly knit than their opponent, were slightly more likely to have won the game. Teams were wise to cultivate passing patterns that were varied and comprehensive, rather than say always going from a center-back to a towering target man.

In business life, one of the classic problems with almost any organization beyond a couple dozen employees is the effective flow of information. At Fingertip we have studied our communication patterns and have identified issues where the flow of information might have a clog (say, multiple people mostly relying on a single person). When it comes to decision-making, it is crucial that the flow of information is fluid and all stakeholders have equal access to it. Fingertip has been designed to facilitate this.

It Is All About Balance

Football is essentially a game about control of space. A manager trying to win a game faces a puzzle: how to use my pieces to effectively use space and deny it from the opponent. If you decide to wield a five-man defense you are also weakening either your midfield or attack. And tactics are hardly boiled down to choice of formation – a classic 4-4-2 can be both a very defensive and very offensive formation, based on your choice of tactics. For example, Zdenek Zeman is famous for his ultra-offensive tactics that leave his backline exposed. At the other extreme we have Helenio Herrera’s Le Grande Inter that innovated the infamous Italian catenaccio with their expertise of 1-0 victories. But to be successful each team needs to find correct balance between solid defense and storming offense. Focus too much on one or the other and you inevitably fail.

Business organizations also need to find a correct balance between many different areas. Even the largest organizations on planet have a limited number of resources to spare. Every euro you spend on marketing is away from product development. Especially young start ups need to find a correct balance on how to use their money, especially since profits are usually meager at best and losses huge at worst in the first few years. Some start ups use so-called ”blitz scaling” strategy, going for size and market dominance in their niche before being properly established. This strategy tends to burn huge swathes of investor money; Uber has yet to turn profit and burns billions (!) of dollars a quarter and WeWork’s planned IPO turned out a disaster before getting a chance to materialize. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

Possession Does Not Equal Quality (meetings vs AC Oulu)

When Barcelona’s tici taca took the footballing world by storm around 2010, possession football became the most fashionable choice of tactics. For some coaches, ball possession seemed to become an end rather than means. While there is a clear correlation with holding more of the ball and winning games, the inference made by many is faulty. My dear club AC Oulu is probably the most excruciating example, feebly passing ball from a center back to another, dominating possession statistics but finding success elusive.

In business world an analogy can be found from meetings where the more dominant personalities can take space from the introverted ones. If great ideas are never shared because the introverts don’t get a chance to air them, businesses can lose a lot of potential value. Like in football where simply having the ball does not lead to victories, in meetings simply talking a lot does not mean your ideas are great. One way to overcome the issues related to dominant personalities that people find hard to disagree with is digitizing decision-makings. When the material and discussions are digitized, the playing field is leveled and it is easier for shyer members of the team to share their ideas. Fingertip’s platform does exactly this.

Universality Versus Narrow Specialty

Football’s tactical evolution can be described as the march from specialists to universalists. Players like ”Pippo” Inzaghi who did one job (in Inzaghi’s case, scoring goals) brilliantly but otherwise contributed little to the game are a dying breed. Forwards are expected to contribute to build-up phase, central defenders are required to be comfortable with the ball and full backs are expected to storm up the field and contribute to the offense.

In the business world, autonomous multidisciplinary teams are nowadays all the rage in management theory. Spotify has popularised a so-called tribal model in which teams are supposed to have all the expertise required to fulfill their tasks. These teams can be thought of in terms of football squads. You have specific roles that need to be filled, like a goalkeeper or a central midfielder. However, for these teams to function properly, a some sense of understanding of other’s capabilities are required. A data scientist used only for SQL queries because the data scientist does not understand the business domain enough to propose more intelligent solutions and the domain experts don’t understand the data scientist to request appropriate methods from him is a waste of resources. Effective teamwork requires that each member can utilize others’ expertise to their full potential.

Lady Fortuna Plays a Part

One of the alluring aspects of football is that underdogs regularly upset the favourites. Denmark in 1992, Greece in 2004 or most spectacularly Leicester in 2016 were nobody’s favourites to win. The reason why upsets in football are more common in football than, say, in basketball comes from the relative rarity of goals. In a game where 1-0 is a common scoreline it is much more probable that the underdog scored the single goal in contrast to basketball where the matches end closer to 100-90; a single, odds-defying three-pointer does not alone win the game.

In business world as well, luck, as much as we hate to admit it, plays a role in the success of organizations. A new start-up might do everything right and better than their rivals yet be out of action in three years. Several studies have shown that fund managers who over-perform during one time period are as likely as not to be under-performing during the next; a simple force of luck turns celebrated superstars to mere mortals or worse. Businesses operate in a highly unstable world where they are only one actor among millions; learning to live with, measure and contain uncertainty are valuable skills. Then, if you fail, you can always blame bad luck or the horrible referee giving an absolutely ludicrous penalty to your opponent!

Lasse Winter is the leading Data Scientist at Fingertip with a background in social sciences and a specific interest in text analytics. He is passionate about gaining exciting insights from data. During his free time Lasse loves sports and reading, with a specific passion for football.

Read Lasse’s scientific blog series:

Is 9-to-5 a thing of the past? When are we most productive.
What’s in a word? Indicators of task completion
Why good decisions get implemented
Too many cooks spoils the decision?
No man is an island and no organization a cohesive body

Fingertip is an online decision-focused business management solution designed to substantially improve efficiency, effectiveness, and empowerment in large complex organizations in the digital age.

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