You often see on LinkedIn, and elsewhere, people crowbarring popular culture into articles tangentially related to management, business and other “LinkedIn type topics”. I tend to avoid these but, after 23 years away from the English Premier League, the team I support (Nottingham Forest) are back in the top league so I am going to try my hand at such a post.
There are, of course, other articles out there on this topic, including this example from The Guardian.
What has been happening at Forest?
Lots of headlines were created around the club last summer as they broke the UK record for signing the most players in a transfer window (22).
This podcast covers everything pretty well in terms of why so many players have been signed.
This approach goes against the established wisdom that teams need some continuity in playing staff to keep cohesion, such as the players knowing how each other play, as well as keeping momentum from the positivity around the previous seasons. The Forest approach goes against this logic and has led to lots of jokes and mockery online, such as:
Now there are valid reasons to question/criticise the Forest approach. The biggest is that the financial outlay has been big and therefore risks the club’s longer term financial security, the gamble is that the investment keeps the team in the Premier League and therefore able to continue to reap the financial rewards. The reality is that relegation, after this level of expenditure, would surely be extremely damaging even with an owner who has been supporting a loss-making enterprise since he bought the club a few years ago.
Reasons for optimism – two key differences this year
As a fan there are two key differences this year that, I think, have been little talked about in relation to Forest but make the strategy less risky:
- Changes to the rules on substitutions … essentially clubs need bigger squads this season and can make more changes during a game which means having more “first team” options, rather than “bench warmers”, that can be useful tactically.
- The winter World Cup … having a long mid-season break gives teams the chance to go on training camps and perform other activity to improve team solidity and strategy mid-season.
Why such rapid change?
For context, a football club (at least in the Premier League) can register 25 players plus have a pool of younger plays that do not have to be included in the 25. With this context, 21/22 new signings is clearly a huge number. However, Forest had 5 key players last season that they immediately lost at the end of last season as they were on loan (i.e. temporary contracts) from other clubs.
They also lost two players who had been major figures in the last few years – the goalkeeper Brice Samba (who seemingly was not willing to sign a new contract and wanted to move back to France) and Lewis Grabban (last season’s captain who presumably wanted to remain a starter rather than become a bit part player for Forest in the Premier League).
Therefore, Forest had to sign at least 7 players.
If you think those 7 must have been ahead of another existing contracted 7 then it is probably fair to say that means at least 14 players were needed for the higher level of the Premier League. Depending on who you listen to the “lost” players can be seen as not just the 7 but actually 17:
Therefore we could argue the change is justified as the club simply lacked the resources to compete in the Premier League due to a “ahead of plan” promotion. Whilst Forest have had a couple of good seasons in recent years, promotion was unexpected, the club being bottom of the league early in the season when the manager Steve Cooper was appointed.
Therefore, the Forest project/experiment this summer transfer window has essentially been a “scaling up” exercise. Whilst numbers of staff may have changed relatively little in total headcount (in part due to the 25 player rule), the percentage of total that is new is considerable and we are seeing a major shift in competency (at least perceived competency based on historical performance).
This is not dissimilar to other industries where we are seeing needs for hiring/upskilling/reskilling to fill roles, especially in fast moving areas like cyber security. Therefore, I am going to try and apply some key management theory to the situation…
Some application of change and team theory
Perhaps the most well know team formation model is the “Forming > Storming > Norming > Performing” model of Tuckman. This is essentially the theory applied by critics, i.e. that the changes have not given Forest enough time to “form” into a team. The winter world cup break should help with this and some “storming” seemed to be happening prior to the break.
The Forest manager, Steve Cooper, is clearly a quite modern manager in the way he speaks. He regularly refers to mentality in his interviews and it would seem he refers to the importance of a shared vision for the team. Such a vision is a key part of various business management models – not least Senges’ five disciplines. Similarly learning from mistakes and other aspects of Senges-like models bleed out of Forest’s current practice.
In many ways Cooper and the management team have had some of the work done for them – the sense of urgency (for example in Kotter’s change model) was well established. They could then focus on empowering the players to achieve through a vision of how the team should be operating. The short term wins of models like Kotter are also well suited to football and the “taking one game at a time” kind of mentality.