Lately I was thinking a lot about a story that I read a while ago.
Sir Alex Ferguson‘s biggest mistake
Sir Alex Ferguson is one of the legends in international football management, especially at Manchester United, the club he managed so successfully from 1986 to 2013 (sic!). He is widely considered as one of the most successful managers ever and therefore a real icon of football history.
In 2001 Ferguson made what he considers one of his biggest mistakes in his managerial career: He sold the Dutch defender Jaap Stam from Manchester United to Lazio Rome for ~16M pounds.
Why did he do that? Ferguson discovered in the statistics, that Stam – 29 at that time – went into less 1on1 duels than the season before. He concluded, that the defender got old and his body was deteriorating. Therefore Ferguson decided to sell him before it was too late.
But what was actually happening? Stam had improved his strategic positioning on the pitch, so he could interfere attacks already BEFORE having to go into a 1on1 (which is actually only the last option for a defender). He was improving his abilities so well, that over the course of the season, he just didn‘t have to take on so many 1on1 duels.
Statistics only tell half the story
Positioning play does not show up in any statistic, it‘s hardly quantifyable. Ferguson admitted this mistake in 2007, claiming that Stam still played on a highly competetive level, although he was already 35 at that point.
I believe that there is a more meaningful truth to this: Often, the obvious things only tell half the story. I think we all had this colleague, who we instantly recognized as the go-to guy for many people in the company. The person who is approached, when everyone else only scratches their heads. The person, who does not show up in the data, but has so much postive impact, that he is probably the most valuable asset in the company (and most people don‘t even know).
Nowadays, we try to measure everything. Data is often referred as the black gold of the 21st century. But we often miss, that there are other factors that play a crucial role in being successful.
In the business world, successful projects and employees are often measured against certain success factors: deadline met? Revenue goals reached? Gross margin improved?
What is often overlooked is, that some really important things don‘t show up in the statistics. First and foremost social factors: You can finish a project in time and piss off the whole team. You can trick people into buying your inferior product (eg. dark UI patterns). You can exploit resources and suppliers.
It will probably bring short term „success“, but it‘s deadly in the long run. What is your company worth, if the most motivated and gifted people leave?
In an interview with Patrick O’Shaugnhassy, David Gardner (CEO of The Motley Fool) said something along those lines: „The most important things [for a company] don‘t show up on the balance sheet: ability to innovate, culture & management‘s vision.“
I find this fascinating, as it‘s absolutely diametrical to so many management „best practises“.
How to spot those „invisible“ abilities?
I think there is no easy answer. There is only one advice: Look closely. Don‘t trust your first instinct.
Alex Ferguson made the mistake of only relying on the statistics. I know company cultures, which classify project outcomes only binary. Those are crucial mistakes in my opinion.
Don’t get me wrong here: I don‘t think, that statistics don‘t matter or deadlines are not important – far from it! My point here is: look closely to get an idea about the whole truth. Good people need appreciation for good leadership, good ideas,…
Looking only at the plain numbers is sometimes just a (really bad) shortcut.
Image Credits: Wikimedia
Book references #supportyourlocalbookstore
The numbers game – Chris Anderson, David Sally