Back in 2013/14 the English Premier League reached an all-time low. Incredibly, the average managerial tenure at a club sunk to just 1.84 seasons per active manager. And if you had removed Arsene Wenger’s 18 seasons at Arsenal that figure would have plummeted to just 1.05 seasons per head. Incredible when you consider it for a moment. Just try to imagine any other multi-billion industry where the COO’s of the 20 leading firms had an average of just 1 year in charge. Consider the impact on corporate memory, continuity, strategy, institutional learning, recruitment, or just about any other metric you’d want to consider.
However, as Martin Calladine points out in his fascinating book The Ugly Game – How football lost its magic and what it could learn from the NFL (Pitch Publishing, 2015) – It’s not just ‘that’ Premier League managers get sacked with alarming regularity but when they are sacked and the reasons why they lose their jobs. The when is usually after very little time and usually mid-season, and the why is a desperate attempt to conjure up an immediate turnaround in results – rather than part of a wider strategic plan.
But as a Chairman why wouldn’t you? If the ends justify the means? Wouldn’t you want to ensure you stave off relegation or make it into a precious European place? Of course you would!
However, the hard truth is that these decisions rarely play out in the interests of the club. In practice this is a terrible way to address the problems of a failing club, it increases the likelihood of relegation rather than mitigates it, potentially impoverishing the club and serving to start the cycle of hire and fire all over again. The practical impact is that the replacement manager’s first roles are focussed almost exclusively on firefighting rather than planning, restructuring and impartially assessing the road ahead. Furthermore, the mythical “dressing room” is empowered and the position of Manager is one that is subtly repositioned as a servant of the playing staff, not vice-versa. Perhaps even more damaging, as in many failing organisations, this ritualistic focus on people and discipline all to quickly becomes an action of “first resort”, not last, and (conveniently) distracts the organisation and its employees from the structural problems hidden elsewhere.
For quantitative evidence of this, Calladine refers to the extensive Bell, Brooks and Markham report of 2013: The Performance of Football Club Managers: Skill or Luck? The report reveals evidence of what club chairman can really expect from their decision to sack a manager in October or February. Their exhaustive report illustrates that leading clubs who sack managers experience a temporary but altogether fleeting upturn in form at best. Those that back their managers in times of trouble are statistically far more likely to experience a sustained improvement in results. Looking at the data in the widest sense, from 700 mid-season sackings over a 30 year period from the 1970s onwards, you guessed it, those clubs performed at a considerably lower level than those who looked towards other methods to improve performance.
So why do it? These are certainly not evidence-based solutions, after all. Perhaps it’s as simple as if you sack a manager and improve you can bask in your godlike genius as a chairman. If the slide continues there are often a myriad of convenient factors to blame this on, ones that do not necessarily reflect too badly on you and the board. It would seem, therefore, that the risk versus reward ratio for the club is actually quite different to that of the individuals at the top of the pyramid. Put another way change is almost certainly in the best interests of the board, even when it’s not clearly in the best interests of the club. And perhaps, Chairman like many successful people suffer from higher levels of survivor and optimism bias. And finally, let’s not forget, as unpleasant as it is to sack another person, for most people that’s far easier then admitting to their own shortcomings.
Perhaps by now you’re wondering what the NFL has to offer on this debate. Back to Martin Calladine for this. He uncovers that the typical time in post for an NFL Head Coach is around 3.2 seasons, a little under the pre 2013/14 average of 3.3 seasons for a Premier League manager. So, no great difference there. But there are major differences in the why and the when. Firstly, it is rare for Head Coaches to lose their jobs during the season, and when it does happen, it’s only after 80-90% of the season is done and there is nothing to play for. The practical impact of this is that NFL typically go 3 and Out, while in English football it’s 2.5 or 3.5 and Out. It’s the impact that the 0.5 has on the clubs that is arguably the root of the toxicity in the system. Through this crucial difference the NFL franchises are better able to address their systemic failings alongside the obvious human factors at play.
Of course, we can’t discuss this without acknowledging the spectre of relegation, a threat that NFL Head Coaches and Owners simply don’t have to consider. But this doesn’t fundamentally undermine the point that sacking football managers doesn’t work, nor that chairmen confuse what’s good for them with what’s good for the club. In other words, it may be true that, were NFL owners to face relegation, they would fall into the same bad habits as English football clubs, but that wouldn’t prove they were right to do so, just that they too hadn’t properly got their organisations operating on a long-term evidence-based footing.
So how does all this relate to Root Cause Analysis?
When it comes to analysing cause and effect within organisations, and especially when firms address the process of creating and selecting effective solutions, Root Cause Analysis encourages them to look beyond the people and stop expecting discipline to be an effective solution. Organisations fixated on hiring and firing often do so in lieu of addressing their systems, tools, hardware, procedures and cultural issues. Evidence reveals that these are the factors that are really defining their performance.
Therefore, an effective RCA culture should force leaders to ask themselves some or all of these questions before they focus on their people:
- Do my problems walk out of the door with the sacked individual?
- Was the sacking in-line with a pre-acknowledged set of threshold performance criteria? Or were other factors at play?
- Have all the solutions we’ve put in place this year been applied to the previous regime only and therefore walk out the door with them?
- Do all my new solutions walk through the door with the next appointment?
- Is the replacement manager moving into a system that is improved, the same, or reduced in resilience?
- Will discipline (or the threat of discipline) encourage staff and/or management to close ranks – starving me and organisation of vital decision-making information?
- Am I basing my decisions on evidence from reliable sources?
- Has the organisation used any objective, methodical technique to uncover all possible areas for corrective and preventative actions?
- Aka Marginal Gains.Has the organisation successfully uncovered and addressed all areas for systemic improvement?
- Is the organisation recording, measuring and sharing improvements both on and off the field?
- Are these tied to long term corporate memory/institutional learning/identity/pattern of managerial play?
- Do all my officers have undeniable clarity on our targets, goals and objectives?
- Who in the organisation is in a position to observe, report and address cultural issues and how?
- Is the organisation focussing on immediate effectiveness over long term negative impacts?
- Would the organisation’s approach to decision-making and problem-solving change with wholesale change of the board/ownership?
- Is the organisation currently imitating or innovating under my governance?
Therefore, if a football Chairman, or any organisational head can answer all these questions in the positive, then there may well certainly be justification for the sacking of [insert failing manager’s name here]. Just as long as, as Martin Calladine suggests, they end their inevitable press conference with these heartfelt words ‘…and if it ever happens again, that we so drastically misjudge an appointment, I will step down too.’
Finally, I’d like to personally thank Martin for allowing us to piggy back on his thought provoking work. I hope that this blog creates as much debate as Martin’s writing did for us at Sologic.