Harvard’s ‘Fergie Project’ hailed as blueprint for success in business
The legendary Manchester United boss’s management style was the subject of a case study at the university
Sir Alex Ferguson
It has long been fashionable for businesses to invite leading football managers, of any code, to address conferences, internal motivational meetings or off-site workshops with a view to learning the lessons of their accumulated management wisdom.
I’ve always been doubtful of the benefits of these encounters except for the novelty value of actually seeing these great men (it is invariably a man) in the flesh. In a celebrity obsessed age there may be benefit here but the universally banal interviews given by managers to the media after a game would suggest there is no evidence that any of them have the ability to contextualise their methods into a format that businesses would find useful.
However, the recently-retired Sir Alex Ferguson has gone some way to finding a solution to this conundrum by joining forces with another legendary brand; the Harvard Business School, where his management style is now the subject of one of their trademark case studies.
The instigator of this unlikely marriage appears to have been Anita Elbrese, an associate professor at Harvard specialising in strategic marketing in the creative industries. She created some waves back in 2008 when she challenged Chris Anderson’s ‘Long Tale’ thesis which claimed that the digital age would dilute the power of blockbusters in popular culture in favour of niche films, books, music, TV programmes, appealing to increasingly specialised individual tastes, thus creating a ‘long tale’ in creative industry markets.
Elbrese examined the sales results in all of these markets and came to the opposite conclusion; that we are seeing even more blockbuster domination in a winner-takes-all era. That would certainly be the case in the English Premier League which has long been dominated by Ferguson’s Manchester United with only a handful of other clubs remotely in contention.
Elbrese’s “Fergie Project” involved visiting the club, carrying out extensive interviews with him, key staff, a selection of current and former players and of course watching the great man in action.
This resulted in a teaching case study which identified eight critical lessons from Ferguson’s management style.
These lessons are as follows: start with the foundations; dare to re-build your team; set high standards and hold everyone to them; never, ever cede control; match the message to the moment; prepare to win; rely on the power of observation; and never stop adapting.
Set out like that you may be having the same doubts I alluded to above about the banality of much of the analysis of sporting success but although there is an element of predictability and ‘sowhatisms’, there is enough meat in the explanations to justify further study.
The first is obvious: successful businesses need good foundations and the basics need to be renewed on a regular basis. But the second point about re-building your team is revealing. Ferguson believes that successful teams have a life of only three to four years so you must continually anticipate the next product mix, while retaining long running “brands” such as Giggs.
Fanatical desire to win
There is a certain amount of overlap between the third, “high standards”, and sixth, “prepare to win”, where both cover the internal culture of the organisation.
This just happens to be a subject attracting increasing attention from management theorists who believe that in spite of its slippery nature it can often be the main difference between successful and unsuccessful businesses.
Ferguson instilled in his teams his own fanatical desire to win everything, every time. It sometimes created trouble for him but it created much more trouble for everyone else. There are some interesting lessons from his diligence in preparation. He dismisses the pre-kick-off huddle on the grounds that your desire to win and your plan for winning should be sorted out long before you set foot on the pitch.