Sir Alex Ferguson Systems Thinker? Blueprint for Success

Thought this was relevant considering Manchester United’s battering at the hands of their nearest rivals Manchester City today. This might be worth a read Mr Moyes if you fancy it haha.

Also worth a read for the chairman at Sunderland not exactly disagreeing with the sacking of Di Canio but it may help for the interview process of the new manager.

I was recently reading a article about a series of interviews Sir Alex Ferguson had done following a run of seminars he had done as a guest speaker at the Harvard business school.

He is highly successful, he has been winning trophies, medals, titles and accolades since I was born.


Anyway whilst reading the various articles one thing triggered my interest. Sir Alex mentioned that in the early days when things were not going well and the press, fans, the board and even maybe some of the players were challenging his thinking, one man wasn’t worried and that was Sir Alex, he had a vision and a clear Purpose.

20130922-220544.jpg^ Sir Alex Ferguson Looking all glum 27 years ago, don’t worry though fergy behind this photo was a man with a plan.

These were his key principles:

1. Start With The Foundation

“From the moment I got to Manchester United, I thought of only one thing: building a football club. I wanted to build right from the bottom to the top and from top to bottom. The first thought of 99% of newly appointed managers is to make sure they win – to survive and reach the targets set by the board, the fans and the media. They bring experienced players in. At some clubs, you need only to lose three games in a row and you’re fired. In today’s football world, with a new breed of directors and owners, I am not sure any club would have the patience to wait for a manager to build a team over a four-year period. Winning a game is only a short-term gain – you can lose the next game. Building a club brings stability and consistency and in my experience the results anyway.”

2. Dare to rebuild your Team

“We identified three levels of players: 30 and older, 23 to 30, and the younger ones. The idea was that the younger players were developing and would meet the standards the older ones had set. I believe that the cycle of a successful team lasts maybe four years and then some change is needed. So we tried to visualise the team three or four years ahead and make decisions accordingly. Because I was at United for such a long time, I could afford to plan ahead. I was very fortunate in that respect. The hardest thing is to let go of a player who has been a great guy – but all the evidence is on the field.”

3. Set High Standards,Set Expectations, Agree the Vision from the Top Down and Lead from the Front

“Everything we did was about maintaining the standards we had set as a football club – this applied to all my team building, my team preparation, motivational talks and tactical talks. I had to lift players’ expectations. They should never give in. I said to them all the time: ‘If you give in once, you’ll give in twice’. I used to be the first to arrive in the morning. In my later years, a lot of my staff members would already be there when I got in at 7am.

“I expected even more from the star players. Superstars with egos are not the problem some people may think. They need to be winners because that massages their egos, so they will do what it takes to win. I used to see Ronaldo, Beckham, Giggs, Scholes practising for hours. They realised that being a Manchester United player is not an easy job.”

4. Match the Message to the Moment

“No one likes to be criticised. Most respond to encouragement. For any human being – there is nothing better than hearing ‘Well done’. Those are the two best words ever invented. At the same time you need to point out mistakes when players don’t meet expectations. That is when reprimands are important. I would do it right after the game. I wouldn’t wait until Monday and then it was finished. My pre-game talks were about our expectations, the players’ belief in themselves and their trust in one another. In half-time talks, you have maybe eight minutes to deliver your message, so it is vital to use the time well. Everything is easier when you are winning. When you are losing, you have to make an impact. Fear has to come into it. But you can be too hard; if players are fearful all the time, they won’t perform well. You play different roles at different times. Sometimes you have to be a doctor, or a teacher, or a father.”

5. Prepare to Win

“Winning is in my nature. There is no other option for me. Even if five of the most important players were injured, I expected to win. I am a risk taker and you can see that in how we played in the late stages of matches. If we were still down with 15 minutes to go, I was ready to take more risks. I was perfectly happy to lose 3-1 if it meant we’d given ourselves a good chance to draw or win. So in those last 15 minutes, we’d go for it. We’d put in an extra attacking player and worry less about defence. We knew that if we ended up winning 3-2, it would be a fantastic feeling. And if we lost 3-1, we’d been losing anyway. All my teams had perseverance – they never gave in. It’s a fantastic characteristic to have.”

6. Rely on the Power of Observation

“Observation is the final part of my management structure. One afternoon at Aberdeen I had a conversation with my assistant manager and another coach who pointed out I could benefit from not always having to lead the training. At first I said no but deep down I knew he was right. So I delegated training to the experts. It was the best thing I ever did. Trust the people around you. Keeping control just so you know it is done is stupid when you know someone who has more expertise can do it better. This is hard for some managers to do as they like to keep unchallenged control, these in my experience are not the managers who go far. My presence and ability to supervise were always there and what you can pick up by watching is incredibly valuable. I wanted to get in amongst my team and thought training them would be it but realised it stopped me seeing the bigger picture, observing and getting in amongst my players helped. Seeing a change in a player’s habits or a sudden dip in his enthusiasm allowed me to go further with him. Sometimes I could even tell that a player was injured when he thought he was fine.”

7. Never Stop Adapting

“When I started, there were no agents and although games were televised, the media did not elevate players to the level of film stars and constantly look for new stories about them. Stadiums have improved, pitches are in perfect condition now and sports science has a strong influence on how we prepare for the season. Owners from Russia, the Middle East and other regions have poured a lot of money into the game and are putting pressure on managers. And players have led more sheltered lives, so they are much more fragile than players were 25 years ago. Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger were probably the two best things to happen to me which might sound weird considering they took titles and trophies away from me. But they taught me to never rest on what you have it’s about continually improving and seeking inspiration both externally and internally and surrounding yourself by people who share that vision”

This entry was posted in leadership, lean, Purpose, six sigma, Systems Thinking and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Sir Alex Ferguson Systems Thinker? Blueprint for Success

  1. John Goymer says:

    Yes excellent stuff: as we now know – it works,

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