Football’s ‘game-changing’ incidents and parallels with the complex dynamics of organizations
As yesterday’s programme of professional football (‘soccer’) matches came to an end, another round of post-match inquests, complaints and accusations began. Week-in-week-out, players and managers question the decisions made by match officials. Then, as yesterday, post-match interviews and phone-in programmes provide further opportunities for referees’ decision-making and competence to be called into question.
Alongside this constant haranguing of officials, fans are fed a diet of instant replays during live matches, highlight programmes and match reports. These all describe ‘the action’ in terms of a selection of discrete events that are claimed to have been critical to the outcome. And, more often than not, these are liberally peppered with what commentators see as ‘poor decisions’ by the referee.
Against this background, I want to challenge the notion that the outcomes of games are determined by these high profile events and/or controversial refereeing decisions. And that, by inference, the seemingly more mundane aspects of the game are of secondary importance. By extension, I also want to draw a brief parallel with what goes on, day-in-day-out, in organizations.
Ten-man Derby lose 4-2 to Burnley
To illustrate the argument, I will use a match between Derby County and Burnley in the npower Championship, which I attended a couple of weeks ago. At half-time, the home side were winning by two goals to one. However, as the hour mark approached, the referee decided that one of the Burnley players had been fouled in the penalty area. He awarded a penalty kick and Burnley duly levelled the score at 2-2. To rub salt into the wounds, he sent off the player who had made the tackle. Down to ten men for the final 30 minutes of the match, the Derby players were overrun and the visitors won the game 4-2.
Walking away from the ground, all of the talk was of the penalty incident and the resulting sending-off. “The match turned on the penalty,” was the widely accepted view of the home fans. It all seemed so obvious. But was it really so ‘cut and dried’? Could Derby’s defeat really be put down to this one incident?
"It was our throw, Ref!"
Consider one of the seemingly innocuous events that occurred earlier in the match. Just after half-time, the referee’s assistant awarded a throw-in to Burnley, directly in front of where I was sitting. From my vantage point, it was clear that the ball had been played into touch by one of Burnley’s own players. The referee’s assistant didn’t see this. The home supporters briefly expressed their anger at the decision, but the incident was soon forgotten and play continued. In the minds of the Derby fans, this was a briefly annoying but otherwise insignificant event.
It was, though, far from insignificant. If the decision had been awarded in favour of the home team, we can say with certainty that the later penalty kick would not have been awarded; the Derby player would not have been sent off; and the visitors’ three second-half goals would not have been scored. This is not to say, of course, that Derby would necessarily have won the match. We simply don’t know. But that penalty, that sending-off and those goals would not have happened. Every kick, every move and every incident from that point onward would have been different from those that actually occurred on the day.
Everybody interferes with the play!
Also, although I’ve drawn attention to how a particular throw-in changed the course of the play (and hence the detailed outcome of the match), the 4-2 result emerged from the complex interplay of every other in-the-moment decision-cum-action that was taken during (and even before) the game. This is most obviously the case in relation to the players and officials on the pitch, but the coaches and other backroom staff of the two teams are also participants in this process. And, since players are inevitably affected by the general atmosphere within the stadium and/or specific comments and reactions directed towards them by members of the crowd, fans can also be added to the list.
This is the case in all matches. Results of games do not ‘turn’ on a few discrete “major incidents”, whether these comprise “highlights” or controversial refereeing decisions. They emerge from the totality of decisions and actions – taken and not taken, executed ‘well’ and executed ‘badly’ – that occur before and during the 90+ minutes of play, both on the pitch and off it. The opportunity to score a goal, and the taking (or not) of that opportunity, arises from the coming together, in that moment, of the outcomes of all of the decisions and actions taken by the various ‘actors’ outlined above. The same can be said of all of the other happenings in the match – whether or not these are considered to be worthy of special comment or heated argument after the event.
Of course, some situations can appear to change the pattern of a game – such as when a goal creates or destroys the “psychological momentum” of one or other of the teams. These can provide the opportunity for a seemingly beaten team to tap into new resources and possibilities. Or they might cause ‘heads to drop’ and an apparently winning position to be surrendered. Either way, the ‘initiating’ situation is itself the emergent outcome of everything that has gone before. It is not something that is “conjured up out of nothing” or “the result of individual genius”, as these situations are often described.
A metaphor for organizational dynamics
In a similar way, conventional management ‘wisdom’ tends to see the everyday process of organization (i.e. people’s ongoing, day-to-day interactions) as, at best, irrelevant and, at worst, a hindrance to the sophisticated task of managerial decision-making and action-taking. It is as if the complex dynamics of organization can be collapsed into a relatively small number of specific incidents that account for the organization’s current state, and into a series of discrete steps that will guarantee its future success. From this perspective, it’s the manager’s job to stand back from the action: analyzing these so-called “critical incidents”. And, using rational step-wise approaches, to chart the way ahead and organize its achievement.
In reality, managers are themselves active participants in the ongoing, self-organizing process of in-the-moment interaction. And it’s from within this largely informal, conversational, psycho-social, political, etc world of everyday organizational reality that the actual ‘pattern of play’ emerges and the formally stated objectives are realized – or not. The challenge then for managers is how they might participate more usefully in this ongoing process of interaction, given their formal role of seeking to enhance organizational performance through the efforts of their teams.
Related post: Ashley’s Dropped Catch