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Total Management: What We Can Learn From Dutch Football

Jon Barnes
Written by Jon Barnes February 12, 2020

A long time ago, in a country called the Netherlands... long before two Dutch guys started a corporate rebellion... and long before Jos De Blok started a revolution in nursing and self-management... perhaps even slightly before Gerard Endenburg developed Sociocracy, there was another revolution happening in the way we organise ourselves. This pioneering work in organisational philosophy, was happening at Ajax Football Club and in the Dutch National Football Team. Let me explain...

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In the 1960s, the Dutch Football Team were a reasonably obscure and small football team, but things were about to change thanks to the help of a man called Rinus Michels. Michels, had successfully managed Ajax to league titles and a number of European Cup victories, and was pioneering a method now known as Total Football. This method has been described as a ‘systems thinking’ approach to football and hypothesised that it was possible to change the perceived size of the pitch during the game. When the opposition had the ball, they would be circled, making the pitch feel very small. When their team regained possession of the ball, players would spread far and wide, thus making the pitch feel huge and the opposition’s job of regain possession like a long struggle.

Total Football

At the time, the English method was static and firmly rooted to playing with 4 defenders, 4 midfielders and 2 strikers, and the Italian method (Catenaccio) was all about having a strong immovable defence. Total Football however, was the antithesis to these rigid structures. This revolutionary organisational method asked for a more fluid approach to football, one which was relative rather than absolute. In Total Football, all players could play the role of any other player on the field and were immediately replaced in their position by one of their teammates. One way of explaining this I’ve heard is that whilst 4-4-2 more or less asks everybody to stay in position, in Total Football, the pitch is seen as a grid. Players have a kind of ‘home box’ on the grid. When they leave their box, the system adjusts, each player moving to ensure each box is taken. The team shape shifts as needed, allowing for the kind of emergence and creativity needed to unsettle static teams.

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Of course, this method asked for a different type of player. It wasn’t enough anymore to be a right back. A defender had to have skills on the ball. And a striker needed to be able to do their bit at the back. Players needed to be 'T-Shaped’, that is to say great at one thing and good at many. Or as a friend once said to me: “We need to be jacks of all trades and masters of some”. Total Football players needed to be adaptable and intelligent in order to adapt with the system.

Let me pause for a second… Does any of this ring a bell?

An organisational system which changes shape depending on the context? Players able to occupy different roles? ‘Systems thinking’? The need for generalists, even over specialists?

Although Michels was a pioneer, the great poster boy of Total Football was Dutch footballing legend Johan Cruyff. Together with his mentor, they made this system work. Disrupting almost every team they came across and making it to the final of the World Cup. They then carried this system into Barcelona, which has carried on with the tradition and last decade under Pepe Guardiola evolved this further to what is sometimes referred to as Tiki-Taka. Whilst it has its critics, it has without doubt led to the huge success of both Barcelona Football Club and the Spanish Football Team, leading the two teams to Champions League and World Cup Titles respectively.

Total Management: What We Can Learn From Dutch Football
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Total Management

Now, we aren’t short of amazing sporting stories that we translate into leadership theory, but what is more impactful to me here, is that this isn’t just some leadership trope, this is a whole philosophy and actual organisational structure so close to what we are starting to see emerge in progressive organisations. Furthermore, on a football pitch this is happening live and at a high pace. The difference between winning and losing can be worth huge sums of money. So how does this relate to self-management?

Fluid Roles

For organisations to thrive in a chaotic world, we need to shape shift our organisms, and fluid roles (whether formally or informally) are the best way of doing this.

Expert Generalists

To do this, we must recruit, encourage, train our teams to not just specialists in their fields but also to be highly adept in other fields (we see this trend with job swaps for instance).

Prediction & Innovation

One benefit of generalists is that they are found to be more successful at forecasting and predicting the future, as well as at innovating, with single generalists outperforming whole teams of specialists. This is even more true as various AI grow stronger in specialist areas but are still weak in general intelligence (the holy grail of AI is sometimes referred to as GAI for this precise reason). Book recommendation - [Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World]

Open Information & Coordination

For teams based on fluid roles to succeed, generalists are important because of what Johan Cruyff called ’spatial awareness’, i.e. the importance of knowing what’s going on around us on the field. In our organisations this is made possible thanks to strong generalist members as well as the fluid movement of information around the organisation without silos. For autonomous decentralised control to work effectively, each team must have the information necessary to see the overall picture of the larger system.

There is an “I” in team

So the story of Dutch Football 50 years ago and Spanish football over the past decade provide an interesting metaphor, if not an actual case study, of applying self-management and systems thinking to high paced, pressurised environments. Interestingly enough, whilst the collective system itself is radical and inspiring, perhaps what is equally radical is the importance of a new type of polymath player that can excel in various areas. Did the system shape the players or did the players shape the system? Probably both.

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More and more in my work helping teams and ‘teams of teams’ to self-organise, what I’m finding most inspiring is how simple tweaks in the architecture of an organisation can trigger personal growth for individual team members. Self-management is as much about the collective system as it is about the role of the individual within the collective. Perhaps there is an ‘I’ in the word team after all… Oh there it is!

This guest blog is written by Jon Barnes. Jon is an organisational change consultant helping companies and teams to self-organise. He is the author of two books Democracy Squared and Tech-Monopolies and has spoken at TEDx about digital democracy and democratic education. You can find out more about him, watch his talks, and explore his Online Course for Organisational Activists on his website at http://jonbarnes.me

Written by Jon Barnes
Jon Barnes
I'm an organisational consultant, working with organisations wanting to become more adaptive.
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