Total Management: What We Can Learn From Dutch Football

JonBarnes
Written by
- 6 min read

A long time ago, in a country called the Netherlands... long before two Dutch guys started a corporate rebellion... and long before Jos De Blok started a revolution in nursing and self-management... perhaps even slightly before Gerard Endenburg developed Sociocracy, there was another revolution happening in the way we organise ourselves. This pioneering work in organisational philosophy, was happening at Ajax Football Club and in the Dutch National Football Team. Let me explain...

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In the 1960s, the Dutch Football Team were a reasonably obscure and small football team, but things were about to change thanks to the help of a man called Rinus Michels. Michels, had successfully managed Ajax to league titles and a number of European Cup victories, and was pioneering a method now known as Total Football. This method has been described as a ‘systems thinking’ approach to football and hypothesised that it was possible to change the perceived size of the pitch during the game. When the opposition had the ball, they would be circled, making the pitch feel very small. When their team regained possession of the ball, players would spread far and wide, thus making the pitch feel huge and the opposition’s job of regain possession like a long struggle.

Total Football

At the time, the English method was static and firmly rooted to playing with 4 defenders, 4 midfielders and 2 strikers, and the Italian method (Catenaccio) was all about having a strong immovable defence. Total Football however, was the antithesis to these rigid structures. This revolutionary organisational method asked for a more fluid approach to football, one which was relative rather than absolute. In Total Football, all players could play the role of any other player on the field and were immediately replaced in their position by one of their teammates. One way of explaining this I’ve heard is that whilst 4-4-2 more or less asks everybody to stay in position, in Total Football, the pitch is seen as a grid. Players have a kind of ‘home box’ on the grid. When they leave their box, the system adjusts, each player moving to ensure each box is taken. The team shape shifts as needed, allowing for the kind of emergence and creativity needed to unsettle static teams.

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Of course, this method asked for a different type of player. It wasn’t enough anymore to be a right back. A defender had to have skills on the ball. And a striker needed to be able to do their bit at the back. Players needed to be 'T-Shaped’, that is to say great at one thing and good at many. Or as a friend once said to me: “We need to be jacks of all trades and masters of some”. Total Football players needed to be adaptable and intelligent in order to adapt with the system.

Let me pause for a second… Does any of this ring a bell?

An organisational system which changes shape depending on the context? Players able to occupy different roles? ‘Systems thinking’? The need for generalists, even over specialists?

Although Michels was a pioneer, the great poster boy of Total Football was Dutch footballing legend Johan Cruyff. Together with his mentor, they made this system work. Disrupting almost every team they came across and making it to the final of the World Cup. They then carried this system into Barcelona, which has carried on with the tradition and last decade under Pepe Guardiola evolved this further to what is sometimes referred to as Tiki-Taka. Whilst it has its critics, it has without doubt led to the huge success of both Barcelona Football Club and the Spanish Football Team, leading the two teams to Champions League and World Cup Titles respectively.

Total Management

Now, we aren’t short of amazing sporting stories that we translate into leadership theory, but what is more impactful to me here, is that this isn’t just some leadership trope, this is a whole philosophy and actual organisational structure so close to what we are starting to see emerge in progressive organisations. Furthermore, on a football pitch this is happening live and at a high pace. The difference between winning and losing can be worth huge sums of money. So how does this relate to self-management?

Fluid Roles

For organisations to thrive in a chaotic world, we need to shape shift our organisms, and fluid roles (whether formally or informally) are the best way of doing this.

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Expert Generalists

To do this, we must recruit, encourage, train our teams to not just specialists in their fields but also to be highly adept in other fields (we see this trend with job swaps for instance).

Prediction & Innovation

One benefit of generalists is that they are found to be more successful at forecasting and predicting the future, as well as at innovating, with single generalists outperforming whole teams of specialists. This is even more true as various AI grow stronger in specialist areas but are still weak in general intelligence (the holy grail of AI is sometimes referred to as GAI for this precise reason). Book recommendation - [Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World]

Open Information & Coordination

For teams based on fluid roles to succeed, generalists are important because of what Johan Cruyff called ’spatial awareness’, i.e. the importance of knowing what’s going on around us on the field. In our organisations this is made possible thanks to strong generalist members as well as the fluid movement of information around the organisation without silos. For autonomous decentralised control to work effectively, each team must have the information necessary to see the overall picture of the larger system.

There is an “I” in team

So the story of Dutch Football 50 years ago and Spanish football over the past decade provide an interesting metaphor, if not an actual case study, of applying self-management and systems thinking to high paced, pressurised environments. Interestingly enough, whilst the collective system itself is radical and inspiring, perhaps what is equally radical is the importance of a new type of polymath player that can excel in various areas. Did the system shape the players or did the players shape the system? Probably both.

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More and more in my work helping teams and ‘teams of teams’ to self-organise, what I’m finding most inspiring is how simple tweaks in the architecture of an organisation can trigger personal growth for individual team members. Self-management is as much about the collective system as it is about the role of the individual within the collective. Perhaps there is an ‘I’ in the word team after all… Oh there it is!


This guest blog is written by Jon Barnes. Jon is an organisational change consultant helping companies and teams to self-organise. He is the author of two books Democracy Squared and Tech-Monopolies and has spoken at TEDx about digital democracy and democratic education. You can find out more about him, watch his talks, and explore his Online Course for Organisational Activists on his website at http://jonbarnes.me

JonBarnes
Written by JonBarnes
2 weeks ago

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Replies (9)

Joaquim Fernandez

Joaquim Fernandez

Pep not Pepe Guardiola.

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Jeroen Vermeer

Jeroen Vermeer

As a proud Dutchman I cannot but love the analogy!

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Sjaak Evers

Sjaak Evers

Excellent, really wonderful to read, for me as an Ajax supporter already my whole life !!

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Ricardo Sorron

Ricardo Sorron

Interesante la comparación, podríamos agregar que el proceso de transformación fue liderado por un referente como Johan Cruyff que tuvo la capacidad de persuadir a sus compañeros a compartir y construir en una única visión, apartándose y soltando los condicionamientos de las conductas rutinarias siendo innovadores y flexibles en el cambio, los principios y valores que guiaron este movimiento aún se mantiene vigente en equipos de élite.

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Tom Rausch

Tom Rausch

It is important to choose appropriate language and I would argue that no one should ever consider themselves a "master" of any skill. Mastery implies you have reached a pinnacle and can get no better. A better word to use is virtuosity. We can all work at becoming a virtuoso in any endeavor. This choice of word recognizes that even the best in the world continue to practice as long as they are interested in performing. So let's all start encouraging virtuosity over mastery. Let's all stay humble and keep working at becoming better. No matter how good we are at something, we always have a learning edge.

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Piter Serrano

Piter Serrano

Congratulations. It was a very interesting article. I have to say that there are a lot of similarities between both organization aspects: football team and an organization (in the end both are teams). But I have to say that as a Getafe FC Supporter (the next opponent to Ajax Team in UEFA Cup) I wish Ajax style lose against Getafe style (a lot of pressure, an intensity, everyone defends and everyone attacks,etc.). :)

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Benjamin Taylor

Benjamin Taylor

My friend and former business partner Dennis Vergne linked to this on LinkedIn and posted:

"Believe it or not..total football as developed in Ajax provided design principles to develop Basis and RedQuadrant.. I must confess. The problem was that whenever Benjamin P. Taylor and I tried to explain it to non-football lovers..we quickly lost them because of our enthusiasm to cover it all. This article by corporate rebels maybe helps!"

https://www.linkedin.com/feed/update/urn:li:activity:6633622220331712512/

My reply was:

Yes, that brings back memories!

I, for one, am available to lecture on how difficult it is to start from scratch and achieve anything related to Total Football. I think there might be some lessons for other aspirational organisational revolutionaries in there!

The aspiration is amazing - the Dutch, after all, came a Sainted Second in the world cup this way - but even the fully realised practice has controversies, as noted.

However, the point is that Total Football is a step *on* from 'Formation Football' which, in practice, needs some combination of:
- the most talented players in the world with years of expertise giving them both situational awareness and a massive range of practical skills
- indoctrination and drilling - literally, military drills and every other kind of development - from the age of... we'll, as young as you can get 'em? I think clubs start working on 'players from about five, these days....
- massive investment in ongoing development

You have to have mastered - overcome all the constraints of, understood all the practices and skills of - the traditional form - before you can master the elegant form

(I don't mean you have to be a journeyman / master in the old form, formally - enough training and development can get you to the new place - but you have to surpass the skills)

It's intriguing that successful implementations of this usually seem to come with rebellious and charismatic leaders. I make no comment on m'good self or m'colleague Dennis Vergne

What you get when you put young inexperienced untrained enthusiastic people into a Total Football format is Schoolyard Football - instead of an intelligent swarm elegantly shaping itself across the pitch for optimal strategic advantage, where the ball is - that's where all eleven of your players are. (And this opens up opportunities for all kinds of negative dominance patterns). Including the goalie. And as corporate rebels determined to define a new way and radicalised consulting, we had people literally begging us for line management, performance management, one-to-ones; all the accoutrements of the 'bad old ways'!

Total Football is harder to play than Formal Football, unless you've been trained in it all your life, and I think that's worth remembering! It's still a vision of better, so the story doesn't stop there...

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Benjamin Taylor

Benjamin Taylor

Another colleague commented:

The problem is that it's not quite true is it. In any team sport, you have to have people stick to their positions. The idea that the Dutch team swapped about isn't correct. If you look at the running patterns of that 1974 team, four of the players had completed fixed positions (one being the keeper of course!), Neeskens was basically told to fill in for wherever Cruyff wasn't and and is very underrated in my opinion. Then they had a bit of rotation between wingers and Cruyff - again when the great man decided it really and full backs that ran up and down a lot but only on one line.

So the Dutch team didn't actually do what people say, they built a team around a mega-star and found the best players to enable him to do his thing. The Ajax team was a bit more fluid but, even then the idea that Cruyff would be centre forward one minute and left back the next (or could even play that role) is mythology.

From what I have seen of the Guardiola style, that also relies on certain people to do the dull, technical stuff while the stars do what they do but it relies on having absolute mega-stars to make it work. Of course a front three of Neymar, Messi and that other bloke can interchange and make it work. The same would not be true if you tried to do that with Babel, Depay and another Kluivert or whoever else they had when they didn't even qualify for the World Cup in 2018. Three decent players but not the very best.

So there we are. I don't believe in total football!
__
It's an interesting challenge! Are we setting ourselves realistic expectations? I always remember that Bergkamp trained as a centreback for two years in rotation training - that perhaps shows what is possible. It also shows the investment requird!

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Vitaly

Vitaly

Team => TiiiM => tIIIIIm

| | 0 | Flag
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