I’ve Seen the Future of Football …

I’ve Seen the Future of Football …
August 28, 2014 Bob Pearce

By TTT Subscriber and podcast host Bob Pearce.


“Success for us is a moving target – we’ve got to keep moving, keep stretching ourselves.”

Brendan Rodgers

In a constantly changing environment, where competitors are evolving, catching up and even surpassing you, every advantage is sought out, extracted and exploited in an attempt to first survive, then thrive. Using self-managed teams is an attempt to respond to these demands with increased flexibility and responsiveness.

As the once advantageous differences in player fitness and technical ability become reduced, we will recognise that split-second differences in decision-making become increasingly vital and so highly valued. The solution sounds simple enough – move the decision-making in football as near to the ball as possible.

Competitive advantage is then established by utilising the potential expertise of the whole team, which is achieved by both ‘releasing’ and ‘developing’ that potential. Each individual is encouraged to think for themselves, and when they do the whole team becomes a living, thinking brain. Look at it from the other end. If you are not empowering each player, you might only be getting 50% of the potential benefit from the team. With the price of footballers being what they are these days, that is a lot of expensive potential to piss up the wall.

Before we get too excited by the idea, it might help to be clear about a few things before we move on. Let’s start with what a self-managed team is not. ‘Self-managed’ does not mean ‘no management or ‘unmanaged’. It does not mean ‘democracy’. And it does not mean ‘do whatever you want’.

Some definitions might be useful. Kimball Fisher defines a team as “a group working together towards a shared goal”. A self-managed team is then “a group working together in their own way towards a shared goal that is defined outside the team”.

Rather than ‘no management’, we would see a change of role for the manager. Rather than ‘democracy’, we would see greater player involvement and influence. Rather than ‘do whatever you want’, we would see players given freedom to work creatively within clearly defined boundaries.

The same idea described using different words would be to ’empower’ the players. And for players to be truly empowered they need to be given authority, information, resources, and accountability. If any one of these is missing there will be no empowerment. They must come as a complete and complementary set of four, or they lose their empowering value.

“Confused players doing their own thing is not what an empowering process is all about”

Rod Thorpe

We are all probably familiar with traditional teams in traditional organisations. It may be helpful to start by looking at these and then go on to see how self-managed teams differ.

You could describe traditional teams as;


Workforce of isolated specialists

Many job descriptions

Information restricted

Many levels of management

Function/department focus

Segregated goals

Has the appearance of being organised

Problem-solving emphasis

High management commitment

Incremental improvements



This style of team is not the one and only option available as part of some kind of ‘natural order’. It is a style of team that is based and built on a number of core beliefs. One model that helps to makes sense of these core beliefs is the Theory X and Y model devised by social psychologist Douglas McGregor over 50 years ago in ‘The human side of enterprise’. In simple terms, McGregor suggested that different people viewed human nature from two different perspectives. It is just a model and, like all models, we use it with an understanding that ‘all models are wrong’, but some can be helpful (as they have the appearance of being ‘less wrong’).

A person with a Theory X view of human nature assumes that;

Most people are lazy

Most people need to be controlled

Most people need to be motivated

Most people are not very smart

Most people need encouragement to do good work

Do you feel that Theory X describes your experience of people generally?

Do you feel it describes you?

Clearly if you are put in a management position and you start with these assumptions about people you will naturally believe that they need to be managed in a particular way. Your core beliefs will determine how you see, how you think, and how you act. You will use an ‘authoritarian’, ‘prescriptive’, ‘autocratic’, or ‘controlling’ management style. You will believe that if you are not telling the team what to do, and how to do it, you are not doing your job properly.

Your Theory X core beliefs will drive you to:

Demand compliance

Believe supervision is necessary

Focus on hierarchy

Manage by policy

Favour audit and enforcement processes

Believe in selective information sharing

Believe bosses should make decisions

Put emphasis on the means

Encourage hard work

Reward conservative improvement

Encourage agreement

For a Theory X-believing manager, conformity is expected. They can be intolerant, short-tempered, distant, aloof, arrogant, poor listeners, take criticism badly, use threats to get compliance, think that giving orders is ‘delegating’, seek out culprits for failures rather than focus on learning, hold onto responsibility but shift accountability to subordinates, and take all the credit while passing on all the blame. You may even choose to go as far as saying that they are fundamentally insecure people, and possibly even neurotic. Consciously or not, they create team cultures where risk-taking is minimal and initiative is on the verge of extinction.

How they behave indicates how they think, which indicates how they see, which indicates what they believe. The manager in the traditional team believes they are there to control and direct. They believe that they are solely responsible for making things happen. They complain about the team’s poor performance and lack of motivation and commitment.

These managers are not mean or harsh people, they simply act on their core beliefs. This is also not a ‘bad’ style of management, and you can probably think of situations in which this approach may be completely suitable and beneficial (particularly when short-term results are required).

But in many situations this style of management may actually hinder the team’s ability to do their job. A manager that holds all the power, acts as the source of knowledge and the holder of information, and serves as judge and jury on performance, is actively dis-empowering players. In some respects it could be argued that Theory X becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Over time a team comes to assume they must need to be supervised closely or else the manager would not need to do it. A downward spiral of eroding self-esteem and unhealthy dependence is established and maintained. The team lose motivation and require motivating. They are not trusted and so cannot be trusted. The team becomes stuck in a Theory X quicksand. In traditional organisations, employees can soon find that their first priority is satisfying their boss, and everything else comes second. And, when you get your value from outside yourself, that value can be taken away from you. A team of specialists and a controlling manager puts dangerously critical reliance on each individual’s abilities.

Selfish Team or Self-Esteem?

So what makes a self-managed team different from a traditionally managed team? We cannot expect to see a change in behaviour, and management style, without a change in values, vision, and assumptions. Ultimately the main difference between the ‘traditional’ and the ‘self-managed’ styles are based and built upon their very different core beliefs that Theory Y holds about human nature.

While Theory X assumes most people are lazy,

Theory Y assumes most people like to work.

Theory X assumes most people need to be controlled,

Theory Y assumes most people have self-control.

Theory X assumes most people need to be motivated,

Theory Y assumes most people motivate themselves.

Theory X assumes most people are not very smart,

Theory Y assumes most people are smart.

Theory X assumes most people need encouragement to do good work,

Theory Y assumes most people want to do a good job.

Do you feel Theory Y describes your experience of people generally?

Do you feel it describes you?

A person with a Theory X view of human nature may respond to hearing these Theory Y views by saying “Yeah right! I’ll believe it when I see it”. Sadly, the answer to this dismissive response is that they will actually see it when they believe it.

This is the reason why a traditional ‘manager’ will find it tough to make what is the most essential change required to become a ‘leader’. People find it very hard to change their basic assumptions about human nature. These core beliefs are actually part of who they are.

If a manager does not hold these Theory Y assumptions they will be incapable of managing in a different way. They simply cannot allow themselves to do what needs to be done in a self-managed team environment. So, to repeat, the essential difference in Theory X and Y managers is not in their words or actions, but in their core beliefs.

If you do hold these Theory Y core beliefs about the people around you, it will naturally lead you to work with these people in a very different way. You will not be a ‘manager’, you will be a ‘leader’, using a ‘participative’ rather than a ‘prescriptive’ management style. Leaders help themselves by helping individuals in the team to flourish. If you start from the position of believing people are motivated, then one quick and easy to keep them motivated is to avoid de-motivating them.

So we would see quite different behaviours from a leader when compared alongside a manager.

The core beliefs of the leader drive them to;

Not demand compliance, but build commitment

Not believe supervision is necessary, but believe education is necessary

Not focus on hierarchy, but focus on performances

Not manage by policy, but manage by principle

Not favour audit and enforcement processes, but favour learning processes

Not believe in selective information sharing, but believe in open information sharing

Not believe bosses should make decisions, but believe players should make decisions

Not put emphasis on the means, but put emphasis on the ends

Not encourage hard work, but encourage balanced work/personal life

Not reward conservative improvement, but reward continuous improvement

Not encourage agreement, but encourage thoughtful disagreement

A leader does not need to control and command. Self-control replaces external control. Leaders seek to build commitment from the team through leading, coaching and teaching. Just to emphasise the point, this style of management doesn’t just allow individuals (and therefore whole teams) to grow and develop, it actively encourages it. In fact developing capability becomes a priority. The leader acts as a facilitator for each individual’s optimal performance. Coaching is not about displaying your own knowledge to players. It is about enabling players to learn. Leaders must be selflessly committed to transferring their knowledge and expertise to those they support. The emphasis is not on the team memorising, but rather on the team problem-solving, learning, and understanding.

The benefits to the individuals are a greater use of their skills, commitment, and creativity, as they experience greater responsibility, recognition, and achievement, resulting in tremendous job satisfaction. As the whole team increases their flexibility and responsiveness, with different skills complementing each other, they are also able to avoid dependency on one person, meaning that one broken link doesn’t wreck the entire chain.

So how do self-managed teams differ when regarded alongside traditional teams?

Not management-driven, now performance-driven

Not a workforce of isolated specialists, now a multi-skilled work force

Not ‘many job descriptions’, now few job descriptions

Not Information is restricted, now information shared widely

Not ‘many levels of management’, now few levels of management

Not function/department focus, now whole-business focus

Not segregated goals, now shared goals

Not having the appearance of being organised, now having the appearance of being chaotic

Not problem-solving emphasis, now purpose achievement emphasis

Not high management commitment, now high worker commitment

Not incremental improvements, now continuous improvement

Not management-controlled, now self-controlled

Not policy/procedure-based, now values/principles-based

Fisher suggests that 50% of teams that set off on the journey from a traditional to a self-managed team fail. And by now it shouldn’t be a surprise to hear that he believes that the single biggest reason for such a huge failure rate is the manager. It is harder for the manager to make the change than anybody else in the team.

From the perspective of a traditional manager with a ‘successful’ style, there would be understandable anxiety about their apparent ‘loss of power’, their uncertainty about the new role, their fear of failure, and perhaps having no role models available. They may well be in their job because they have been recognised, rewarded, and promoted for their controlling skills, rather than their delegation, coaching and facilitating skills. They didn’t get where they are today by believing that people can motivate themselves. This can all make this ‘leap into the unknown’ a very unattractive option. Given that the key factor in implementing a self-managed team is the manager, this is a considerable barrier to making the change.

Clearly it is far less of a struggle for a ‘young’ and ‘inexperienced’ manager who has not been recognised, rewarded, and promoted for their controlling skills.

“He was a fantastic educator. What he gave me was responsibility and opportunity”

Brendan Rodgers

You are the parent of your potential. The coach is just the midwife

“Not far from where I live is a place called Death Valley. Death Valley is the hottest, driest place in America, and nothing grows there. Nothing grows there because it doesn’t rain. Hence, Death Valley. In the winter of 2004, it rained in Death Valley. Seven inches of rain fell over a very short period. And in the spring of 2005, there was a phenomenon. The whole floor of Death Valley was carpeted in flowers for a while.

What it proved is this: that Death Valley isn’t dead. It’s dormant. Right beneath the surface are these seeds of possibility waiting for the right conditions to come about, and with organic systems, if the conditions are right, life is inevitable. It happens all the time. You take an area, a school, a district, you change the conditions, give people a different sense of possibility, a different set of expectations, a broader range of opportunities, you cherish and value the relationships between teachers and learners, you offer people the discretion to be creative and to innovate in what they do, and schools that were once bereft spring to life.

Great leaders know that. The real role of leadership in education is not and should not be command and control. The real role of leadership is climate control, creating a climate of possibility. And if you do that, people will rise to it and achieve things that you completely did not anticipate and couldn’t have expected.”

Ken Robinson

We’ve talked about the what and the why of self-managed teams, now let’s talk about the how.

If a Theory Y-believing leader walks into a traditional team that has only ever worked with Theory X-believing managers and wants them to become self-managed, it is not a simple flip of the switch, and this morning we begin. They must move from being a manager to becoming a leader as the team matures from a traditional to a self-managed team. The move requires time for the transfer and testing of decision-making from the leader to the team.

This means it is important to have a clear understanding of the ‘new’ leader role before discarding the ‘old’ manager role. Far from a passive role in which they ‘stay out of the way’, the leader role is actually an aggressive and proactive one.

The leader sees their role as going well beyond the mere completion of task and focus on relationships. Fisher describes them working more as ‘work process architects’ than as ‘work operations monitors’. They will lead by convincing people, not telling people. When you start from a position of having respect for people you assume that the team will have intelligence, will not be easily swayed, and are not willing to follow the path of least resistance for a quiet life.

“I don’t want my players to be better than their opponents – I want them to be the very best they can be”

Wayne Smith

When coaches question players and encourage them to ask questions, they encourage and enable them to take ownership of their learning, and their responsibility to perform. They develop ‘character’ and ‘leadership’. The team will see their rewards as coming not from the boss, but from the performance.

“By playing purposeful games, athletes enjoy training and their intrinsic motivation is increased, which in turn enhances their desire to learn and encourages them to continue”

Lynn Kidman

For a team accustomed to prescriptive managers, who have always told them what to do and how to do it, the leader’s ‘new’ approach may initially be surprising. Their initial reaction to a coach who works by asking them questions may actually be to wonder if maybe the coach doesn’t know the answers. It may take a while for them to appreciate that the leader is asking questions for a reason.

Or perhaps they may feel that they are being criticised by the leader, and so instead of engaging with the question they may become defensive and focus on justifying their actions. They may become frustrated when they hear the leader tell them that there are no absolute right and wrong answers. That ‘it all depends’.

“It depends on the opponent’s move, it depends on your position on court, it depends on how much skill you have, it depends on the situation, etc.”

Rod Thorpe

The teams needs to work through a series of steps, taken first by the learning of new skills by the team, followed by time for them to put their newly acquired abilities into practice. This permits learning and performing to take place at the same time. The leader provides progressive challenges to build understanding, develop decision-making, increase skill, improve social interactions, etc. Over time, through this combination of learning and experience, with theory becoming practice, both the individual and team competence and confidence is developed. The team steps up. The team grows up. The team matures. They will steadily climb the steps towards being a self-managed team. And with every step they will reduce the team’s dependency on the manager.

“The solution they generate is theirs and thus athletes will take ownership and remember, understand and apply the content more effectively than if they were told what to do, when to do it and how to do it”

Lynn Kidman

Team leaders want to develop what Fisher describes as an “entrepreneurial spirit, often called ownership, in others by encouraging them to find their own best way to get the job done.”


I can hear the class grow

If you trust someone they will trust you back. The team gets itself into a positive cycle. The leader holds beliefs that the team can be trusted. The leader’s behaviour shows the team that the leader trusts them. The team feel trusted. Their behaviour shows they can be trusted. The leader’s beliefs are reinforced. The positive cycle goes around again. And again. And again. And again. And again. Each time at a higher level of performance in an upward spiral. Players eventually buy into something bigger than themselves. As psychologists have found, the two top sources of motivation in sport are ‘achieving’ and ‘belonging’.

“Winning is where you compare yourself to others. Success is self-measured, based on individual performance and contribution”

Lynn Kidman

This will not be the smooth and steady progression that it may sound like in theory. Part of learning is occasionally making mistakes. If you plot the team’s performance on a graph you’d see a ‘learning curve’ with a slight dip before rising up to a higher level, hold steady there before another slight dip followed by a further rising up again to an even higher level of performance. The slight dips are part of the process. They are where the team are regularly encouraged to step outside of their comfort zone, and return again a better player.

Does the team and the team leader need to arrive at the final destination of being a self-managed team before it ‘clicks’ and we see visible changes and results? The answer is no because the process is a mixture of learning and experience. One step up followed by one step forward. Periods of holding steady while they bed in their new knowledge and skills, followed by short periods of change when the team take on relative instability while they put their new knowledge and skills into practice. So the team will go through a process of some steps back and several steps forward. And step by step the team will evolve

“You’ve got to be prepared to make mistakes and allow players to make them. The team that makes the most mistakes wins the game because only ‘doers’ make them. Your job as coach is to ensure they’re not making the same mistakes over and over”

Wayne Smith

When a self-managed team approach is combined with the modern footballer who is expected to use their combination of elements to fulfil a variety of different roles (rather than being specialists), we can begin to see a thinking, adapting, creating, breathing, living team that is many times more than the sum of its parts.

“Where traditional work groups typically are organised into separate specialised jobs with narrow responsibilities, self-directed teams are made up of members who are jointly responsible for the whole work process, with each individual performing multiple tasks”

Kimball Fisher

With the future of football requiring teams to become both smarter and quicker at out-thinking their opponents by anticipating their threats, and creating opportunities through their own unpredictability, and then adapting and changing both of these throughout the tactical adjustment and counter adjustment narrative of a game, a self-managed team delivers a huge advantage of additional options, and greater speed.

It takes time. Players have to adjust to being coached in a different way. This will not be a short term fix. But developing a group of thinking players builds a long term and self-sustaining advantage.

“Coaching is a long term process but is often judged on short-term results”

Rod Thorpe

For decisions to be taken closer to the ball by those that have to take action, a gradual handover takes place as the team matures. As the team climb up each step the manager hands over an aspect of decision-making and so climbs down a series of steps away from being a traditional manager. They have less direct involvement in decision-making as the team take on increasing responsibility. If judged by the criteria of a traditional manager, at times the coach can appear to be trying to almost makes themselves superfluous and redundant. But the leader has not neglected their responsibility and accountability. While they were working themselves out of one job they were working themselves into  another role. A role which does not create dependence, disempowerment and dissatisfaction.

“To ensure success, coaches need to strive for the self-sufficiency and self-fulfilment of the athlete”

Lynn Kidman


Remember at the start we said that ‘self-managed’ did not mean unmanaged. A self-managed team is still managed, it is just managed in a very different way. What a well coached and experienced team require from their leader is quite different to the controlling, autocratic, prescriptive, disciplinarian style of the traditional manager. As the team reach the stage of being self-managed they will have transformed from a traditional manager role into a leader role. The nature of their relationship to the team is now drastically different. The team no longer require the work ‘operations monitor’, they need a work ‘process architect’.

The team need their leader to focus their attention elsewhere in order to support their work. Fisher calls this different type of relationship to the team the ‘Boundary Manager’ role.

They know the team has the skills, abilities, intelligence and confidence to do the job. You could visualise the relationship between them as being the self-managed team on the pitch making the moment-to-moment decisions required to achieve the goal, while the ‘boundary manager’ walks the metaphorical perimeter of the pitch taking care to ensure the team have everything they require to do their job well. The leader will be focusing on the environment surrounding the team. They may not be able to control everything in this ever-changing environment, but they make it their business to work to manage the elements in it in such a way that positively affects the team’s ability to be successful. They focus on the boundary issues.

The team leader will have a protector role (shielding the team from inappropriate distractions and unnecessary confusion). They’ll also have a translator role (helping the team comprehend the fuzzy, chaotic, and fast-moving reality around them). They work to allow the team to continue adapting and thriving within the changing pressures, expectations, demands, and opportunities of the environment they find themselves in.

These will include tactical developments, match schedules, opponents’ strengths and weaknesses, individual injuries and fitness levels, refreshing the squad, media praise and criticism, fans’ expectations, etc.

“The coach who can assess what is needed… is the most effective coach”

Rod Thorpe

So while the traditional manager worked in the system, the team leader works on the system. They are assuming that the team are self-motivated and already want to do the best they can within the constraints of the system they are working, so they focus their attention on improving that system, which they do by re-designing the system. Fisher describes the boundary manager acting as “an organisation designer, an infrastructure builder, and a cross-organisation collaborator”. They may not always be the one who actually does this work themselves, but they see its value and they ensure that it gets done. This almost always requires working across the boundary. Fisher identified seven aspects to the Boundary Manager role.


One of the key characteristics of a leader is their ability to unleash energy and enthusiasm by creating a vision that others find inspiring and motivating. ‘Good enough’ is not good enough. ‘Ok’ is not ok. They are committed to continuous improvement. They are agents of change and so constantly challenging the status quo.


The leader coaches others and helps them develop their potential, maintains the authority balance, and ensures accountability in others. The rule of thumb is people are given the level of responsibility, authority and autonomy that they can handle, which of course is being developed over time. Teams need to learn to learn. One way for the team leader to do this is to ask questions rather than give solutions. By helping individuals to develop their problem-solving skills their decision-making abilities become increasingly effective.

Results catalyst

They get good results without resorting to authoritarian methods. Leaders manage by principle rather than by policy and uses boundaries rather than directives. No other ability better symbolises the difference between traditional organisations and self-managed teams. Leaders focus on the ends rather than the means to accomplish them, and they build their trust in the team to use their intelligence and expertise to get good results. They know that encouraging others to find their own best way to do the job encourages ‘ownership’.

Environment analyser 

The team leader understands the bigger picture and is able to translate changes in the team’s environment into opportunities for them.


Leaders focus their time and attention on how to provide the team with the right resources, experiences and information needed to do the job successfully. Because they believe that motivation is generated internally they do not seek to make people be productive, but instead seek to simply allow them to be productive. Instead of just giving them a solution or a decision to implement, they work to develop their problem-solving expertise so they can make decisions themselves. They take advantage of every teaching moment that becomes available.

Barrier buster

Team leaders push open doors and also shield the team from external interference. They challenge the status quo, and dismantle artificial barriers in order to help the team get results.

Living example

The team leader serves as a role model for others by ‘walking the talk’. Actions speak louder than words. What they say is not as important as what they do. They model the desired behaviour they expect from others.

“Professional club coaches say to me, ‘I agree with you but if I do not get a quick return on my efforts I will be out’. We have to change the way we evaluate coaching – coaching is a long term process concerned with the development of a player. I think many coaches are really instructors”

Rod Thorpe

Are we there yet Boss?

“The most important thing for me as a coach is continuous improvement”

Brendan Rodgers

Fisher says that two leadership characteristics are particularly important for boundary managers. They are masters of change and they are visionaries. Their commitment to continuous improvement drives them to constantly ask ‘how could we be even better?’ The leader must not let winning be the enemy by making the team complacent.

“Failure is never final and success is never-ending. Success is a journey, not a destination”

Robert Schuller

This is a continuously improving team. It is constantly looking for ways in which it can be pro-actively adapting, learning, and replenishing to allow it to first survive and then thrive.

“It is not only by the questions we have answered that progress may be measured, but also by those we are still asking”

Freda Adler

In the long term the team lives on beyond any one individual, with many new faces maintaining the self-managed team culture. So do you make judgements about suitable new recruits to the team? Do we start with familiar names who have had success elsewhere? No. First comes the strategic plan, then the tasks needed to carry out the plan, and finally teams are formed to do these tasks. So, in looking at potential recruits we’re looking at the range of team members required for the range of tasks for our strategic plan. In the future, in addition to the traditional qualities of skills, strength, and stamina, footballers will need to be constant learners. Two helpful indicators may be that 1) they have experience of working at a club with a leader and so familiar with the coaching styles; 2) they have a track record of development and growth in those circumstances.

“Life is about educating and improving. That is the journey”

Brendan Rodgers

Fisher paraphrases Winston Churchill, saying that self-managed team are the worst form of organisation except for all the others. “They are frustrating and messy and chaotic. But they work. They get results.”

I’ve seen the future of football, and it is self managed.

League Managers Association PR Shoot 12/05/2014

Guess which one this article is really about…

This article was largely based on ‘Leading Self-Directed Work Teams’ by Kimball Fisher, and ‘Developing Decision Makers’ by Lynn Kidman.