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What design lessons can we learn from English football’s underdog?

By Stephen Carmichael, PA public services expert

What design lessons can we learn from English football’s underdog?

If you're anything like me – a Scotsman, living in Glasgow and starved of quality football (sorry to all of the Scottish football fans out there) – your attention turns to the thrill of the English Premier League. And this season's Premier League topped them all in terms of excitement. For those of you unfamiliar with what happened, Leicester City (‘The Foxes’) defied 5000-1 odds by topping the richest league in the world, beating the likes of Spurs, Manchester City and Chelsea. A real David and Goliath(s) story.

With the Premier League season now over (and our attention turns to the Euros), I want to share some of the lessons we can learn from The Foxes' incredible achievement when designing businesses.

"40 points by May" (...and the importance of setting strategic objectives)

Collis and Rukstad said that your strategy should contain three elements: scope, advantage and objective, and should be clearly communicated. Leicester's measureable and time bound objective was clearly communicated to all: "40 points by May" (the number of points required to avoid relegation).

And of course, they smashed their target!

However, when redesigning or restructuring, it is surprising how many organisations are unable (or unwilling) to clearly communicate what they hope to achieve (i.e. their strategic objective) and how they will do it. This effectively can leave the organisation rudderless, with individuals in the organisation – including senior execs – scratching their heads wondering which direction they’re headed.

Points win prizes

When looking at many of the statistics that the analysts (pundits) pore over, e.g. passes completed, possession of the ball shots on target etc., Leicester placed near bottom of the charts. However, instead of keeping possession, trying to pass through opponents, Leicester defended resolutely and relied on their blistering pace on the counter-attack to put the ball in the back of net, gaining more points than anyone else in the process (the only measurement that matters, after all). In other words, they played their own game and to their strengths.

This lesson seems obvious, right? Be clear on what your capabilities are and turn them to your advantage. Yet, many organisations often try to be all things to all people. Or worse still, stifle those things that could make them great, removing their source of competitive advantage – the Leicester equivalent of playing Jamie Vardy (Leicester’s record-breaking centre forward) as a goalie.

Have premium-end products? You probably shouldn't be trying to compete on price. Want to be the biggest organisation in your sector? You might have to sacrifice some profitability in your quest for growth.

Don't be afraid to ‘Tinker’ (...though sooner or later you need to get to a settled state)

The charismatic Foxes manager, Claudio Ranieri, was known to English football fans. During a spell as Chelsea boss in the early noughties, he chopped and changed his side, earning the unfortunate moniker ‘Tinkerman’. His arrival in Leicester in the summer of 2015 was greeted with similar ridicule; as a journeyman manager, unable to settle on a first XI and with an empty trophy cabinet.

I can sympathise with old Claudio. Like building a good football team, good business design is an iterative process. Time should be taken, for example, to understand the capabilities you need and how these will fit into your organisation. The reality is that organisations often stick rigidly with what they have (even when it's not working) or (just as bad) continually tinker, leading to ‘change fatigue’. When designing businesses, I’m all for tinkering, though you need to know when to stop.

Thankfully, Mr Ranieri got it right, managed to establish a settled team quickly and used fewest players in the Premier League this season. “Tinkerman” no more!

This brings me nicely to my next point.

“Talent wins games, but teamwork wins championships”

Ok, so this is a quote from Michael Jordan – the point is that for all the talk of how good Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez are, it was the team that was exceptional. The individual capabilities of the players complemented one another. More important was that each player worked so well together that they strengthened their individual performances; to coin a much-used phrase: “The whole was greater than the sum of the parts.”

Given Leicester's flirt with relegation the previous season, they'd be forgiven for making big changes. However, there was no star player brought in, who might have worked independently (as star players often do) in the expectation that their talent alone could drive the “team” to victory.

In many organisations, changes are made independently, either in the hope that they become a cure-all, or simply that other critical elements had been overlooked. Things like changing ways of working or processes without considering the impact on IT. When designing businesses, leaders need to work with colleagues across functions and even organisations, to ensure that all elements are aligned to optimise performance.

And most importantly, be a fan pleaser

The game of football is really simple: score more goals than the other team – and try to do so in an entertaining way. This is what the customers (fans) value above all else. Judging by the small earthquakes felt in the Leicester area during match day, I'm confident that the fans were happy.

The point is that The Foxes set up their team (as admittedly, the majority of football teams try to) to please the customer. To pass the good design test, organisations should be built around the customer. The design should establish customer need, meet that need and be able to communicate the benefits to the customer.

In practice however, organisations are often designed and structured around internal capabilities without considering the customer journey. For example, the contact centres where you’re passed from pillar to post, or the online retailers with the convoluted returns policies, drive the customer mad!

There are a number of other elements you should consider when designing or redesigning organisations (and I might have stretched the analogy a wee bit) though I ask you to consider: is your business design Foxy?

Check out this and our other Business Design blog posts here

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