Forget 4-4-2. 60-30-10 will win you the World Cup

Does J. Richard Hackman, professor of social and organizational psychology, hold the key to creating a wining team?

By Paul Grech

This article first appeared in Issue 8 which was published in June 2018.

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There are many who have ridiculed Brendan Rodgers for the manner in which he talks about the game and for his adoption of so-called management talk but in reality he is excellent at laying down his vision. It is easy to see how players might quickly get to see what he wants from them before they join because he has worked so hard at refining his plan and his design. It makes it easier for him to get that 60% right.

As the World Cup approaches, a group of men will be attempting to achieve the most difficult task in football: to bring together a number of incredibly talented individuals and within the space of a few weeks meld their skills so that they prove they are the best on the planet. That is the task asked of any manager leading a nation out in the final stage of the World Cup but, in particular, that is the pressure weighing down on those who are in charge of those countries that start as favourites.

The history of the competition is littered with sides who were believed to be the most talented but who ultimately failed to deliver. Luck occasionally plays a part but there aren’t many who have won the World Cup purely thanks to good fortune. In fact, if you distil the virtues of all the sides who have claimed the title of world champions there is one aspect that binds them together: the strength of a group that exceeds the combined value of the individuals making it.

That ability to put together a team capable of winning has forever been managers’ main objective. Some try to get there through tactics that limit their weaknesses whilst highlighting strengths. For a few, charisma is enough whilst others use psychology to bring their players together against the rest of the world. Those who find themselves at clubs with deep pockets often simply try to buy the best players available.

And, sometimes, these strategies succeed.

Yet the best managers – those whose glories have spanned years and decades rather than a few months – bring together not only these characteristics but also the ability to forge teams.

Of course the challenge of putting together successful teams is not one that is restricted to football. Ever since industrialisation began to bring together unrelated people to work in the same environment there has been a need to find ways to get people to work together as seamlessly as possible.

It is in pursuit of this that J. Richard Hackman had dedicated most of his working life. For more than five decades he tasked himself with determining the dynamics of teamwork and effective leadership. In the process, he was the author or co-author of 10 books on group dynamics as well as becoming the Edgar Pierce professor of social and organizational psychology at Harvard. 

Hackman was the man who helped kill off the idea that the best leaders were powerful individuals who dominated their teams, stating in his 2002 book Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances that what made good leaders was the ability “to get a team established on a good trajectory, and then to make small adjustments along the way to help members succeed.”

Of all the theses that Hackman put forward, one stands out as being potentially of special interest for football coaches; that which is known as the 60-30-10 rule.

Essentially, this proposes that 60% of a team’s effectiveness is down to the work that goes in before it is brought together, 30% due to the way it is launched and the remaining 10% down to how it is managed from that point onwards.

Although it might appear strange to formalise what is considered to be an art, what this formula effectively does is underline the intuitive genius of the world’s greatest football managers. When Johan Cruyff arrived at Barcelona as a manager he worked on instilling the whole club with his vision of how the game should be played. At both Aberdeen and Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson’s initial objective was to wipe away any ideas of inferiority to the teams that at the time dominated the respective leagues. The Bill Shankly inspired Liverpool Way, Helenio Herrera’s catenaccio at Inter, Valery Lobanovsky’s scientific method at Dynamo Kiev – are all prime examples of managers who instilled their own identity on clubs.

That is precisely what the 60% refers to; that the bulk of the work in building strong teams is done away from the training pitch and happens before there are any players involved. This is what makes the current coaching buzzwords of footballing philosophy and DNA so important, because they are the foundations of a successful side – the 60% that Hackman was referring to.

Having a compelling playing culture that players can clearly recognise and believe in is a fundamental reason in any success. It also helps choose the right players who can play in the manner that is required and have the ethos that fits into that culture. That is why so many of the world’s top clubs are now placing so many resources on finding what players are like off the pitch as well as on it before making any decision on buying them.

This too is part of the vital 60% that goes into designing the team. It also explains why any managers who do not have the backing to work in such a manner – or who are not working in tandem with a director of football off a plan that has similar objectives – are bound to fail. A manager’s ability to lay out how they plan to design their team should be key in any decision to appoint them because if the board do not buy into it – or it is not strong enough – then it becomes difficult to see it as anything more than a short-term appointment.

There are many who have ridiculed Brendan Rodgers for the manner in which he talks about the game and for his adoption of so-called management talk but in reality he is excellent at laying down his vision. It is easy to see how players might quickly get to see what he wants from them before they join because he has worked so hard at refining his plan and his design. It makes it easier for him to get that 60% right.

St Mirren’s recent history is a good example of this issue. When Jack Ross took over as manager in October 2016, the club seemed on its way to relegation and it seemed that he could do little to avoid it. Then came January and with it ten players that he knew fit in well with the way he viewed the game. With these players he managed to stave off what had previously appeared as inevitable and with largely those same players he has gone on to take the club back to the Scottish Premiership. Ross has a very clear view of how he wants his teams to play – putting a lot of emphasis on their creativity and incisiveness as well as aggressive forward play – and once he got in the players that fit into that vision he could achieve what previously seemed impossible.

In Ross’ case, however, he got not only the first part of Hackman’s theory right but also the second. This – the 30% – is the element that deals with how the team is launched. Whereas the previous element looked at the foundation of the side, that is ultimately all preparatory work for when the team comes to face the action.

In footballing terms this means those exercises aimed at setting a baseline for performance especially when new players come into the side following a transfer. Everyone needs to be familiar with the language that players use to communicate during games, for instance. Or the way that issues that cause conflict and disciplinary matters are dealt with. An element of trust is required but also the expectations that are placed on the various members thus challenging them to aim higher.

These are the activities that actively turn a group of individuals into a team; that helps gel them together. This feeling is not automatic and needs work for it to develop, and yet no team is successful without it. Players do not necessarily all need to like each other – in fact some might privately dislike others – but when they’re on the pitch they need to act in synchronicity.

It is a manager’s role to help facilitate this. Sir Alex Ferguson managed to develop so many teams both north and south of the border that could seemingly play out of memory not because he was lucky but because this was something that he was very good at nurturing. It is in doing so that a manager becomes a true leader.

Which brings us to the final 10%, the portion of success that Hackman’s research led him to believe is down to the ongoing coaching that a team receives.

In an interview, Hackman once claimed that “no leader can make a team perform well. But all can create conditions that increase the likelihood that it will.” Or, as the former France, Liverpool and Lyon manager Gerard Houllier once said: “In sports, you cannot programme success or plan it. You can just prepare for success.”

This will not play to the ego of those coaches who believe that they can guarantee success, but it is logical. The coaching that is delivered throughout the season can improve players and get them to understand better what the manager wants from them. This coaching might be crucial in the long term as the players familiarise themselves with tactics but by itself can rarely deliver success if it is not backed up by the other two elements.

It is what makes it difficult for managers who come in midway through the season and it is why pre-seasons are so crucial. That is the time that managers have to shape their teams and it is how well that period goes that greatly determines how the season will be.

That does not mean that the coaching that is delivered throughout the season is of no bearing. The fractions that distinguish between success and failure are so small that the final 10% in the equation can prove to be hugely important. A manager has to keep his players motivated, switched on and focused on every game for all the foundational work to lead to meaningful results. The tactical switches that they work on throughout the season in preparation for specific games might win them crucial points.

All of this is important; of that there is no doubt.

The real lesson of Hackman’s theory lies in the value that coaches need to pay to the various stages of the season. Before they even start they need to have the direction they want to take and build the team accordingly. Once that is done they need to give the early push that sets the team off and then, throughout the season they need to ensure that they maintain momentum.

Interestingly, Hackman’s findings also led him to conclude that teams that stay together longer are much likelier to do better. From a footballing point of view, this makes sense: players who are used to playing together know which runs and movements the others will make so they are more in sync. Yet, whilst this is widely accepted many also believe that there is a limit to the longevity of a successful team; that eventually performances will fall off.

According to Hackman, that can be avoided by introducing a “deviant, someone who can help the team by challenging the tendency to want too much homogeneity, which can stifle creativity and learning.”

In other words, keep a team together but add a couple of new elements to it on a regular basis to help keep the team evolving.

This article first appeared in Issue 8 which was published in June 2018.

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