This analogy is about soccer. The value of a good analogy can be to find fresh perspectives and see things we're used to looking at in a whole new light. Since the news here is still awash with Manchester City's victory I thought it was ripe for a good analogy. Most professional sports could be seen as a microcosm of the wider business world, but for this case we'll concentrate on football.
Manchester City won their first Premiership title in 44 years. 'It's amazing what you can do with just over £1billion', say the more cynically minded. But you can't escape the obvious, for any company resources can make the difference. These clubs are companies, they compete for the premier league and other cup titles, but they also compete in the lucrative Asian and global markets for fans to sell merchandise to and for pay per view sports income. The better their football, the bigger their potential revenue.
As in any sector, that wealth of resources still needs to be well managed otherwise you'll come up short against more experienced opposition.
That One Thing That Made All the Difference
In the second half of the season commentators kept using the phrase, "will that be the goal that decides the title?". This was always irritating. It reminds me of the person cramming that last bit of info into their heads before an exam, when the truth is that it was the little bits of work and attention to detail in the previous months added up that really made the difference. It was the 30 or 40 goals before that 'crucial' goal that allowed them to be in that position at all. They all build upon the others. That said, in City's case when the chips were down and all was on a knife edge when all seemed lost, it was 2 goals in 2 minutes of extra time that turned an unexpected defeat into a title victory. (View Video Here)
That's the tangible numbers; a company either makes money or it doesn't, a team scores goals, wins matches and get's points or it doesn't. Like in a startup, underlying all this, the less tangible element is character. Essentially it's most of the things listed in Rudyard Kipling's stirring poem 'If'. You can have lots of good helpful numbers behind you, but if you don't have fortitude, ability to raise your game when all looks lost then you won't succeed.
Many have, with some justification, labelled Man City as a team of mercenaries, lacking the character to maintain a realistic title challenge. Yet all along, in between the marquee signings, City have quietly assembled a strong spine, filled with the kind of players capable of inspiring their team when they don’t happen to be winning 3-0.
The Importance of Leaders In Sport & Business
If you had to pick one incident in the season it was Utd loosing to City 1-0 in April. You get the impression that if Utd had remarkable characters and true leaders of old such as Roy Keane or Brian Robson to rally them they may have got a result, but they didn't. Yet I saw Vincent Kompany, the City captain shouting, corralling and marshalling his men to the crucial victory. As someone said beside me at the time said, "he got so fed up, he had to go up and score the goal himself".
It's Not All Predictable and Plain Sailing
2011/2012 was one of the most remarkably dramatic and entertaining seasons of the Premiership because it was littered with inconsistencies and surprises in results and players' form, when lesser teams pulled out greatness and beat better sides. Both Manchester clubs were the main contenders for the title and both had their ups and downs when they stalled, were expected to triumph but didn't. At one point City looked to be running away with demolishing the competition. Then in March a bad run of away form, Utd lead the league and their main rivals by eight points and it seemed all in the bag when Arsenal beat City 1-0. But they crept back, pulled themselves together and closed that gap, finally winning on goal difference on the final day.
How often in business do we look like we're making a great start but then something slips, something unforeseen happens and it allows our competitors ahead of us, it takes a while for us to adjust and bounce back? How often the opposite, when we start poorly like Arsenal, dropping to the relegation zone, only to make good and work all the way back to finish third? The vision and the ability to stick with your beliefs, or to change your tactics, to know what's flexible and on what you won't compromise makes the difference. Every team or business has their surprise defeats and setbacks, it's what you learn and how you deal with them is key.
All About Timing
But what about timing? Being in the right market at the right time, or playing the right team at the right time? Arsenal were back on a good run, they'd beaten fierce rivals Spurs and beat Milan 3-0. If Arsenal had played City two weeks later when City where lifting out of their slump it may have been a very different story. On the day they deserved to win, over the season they weren't the better team however and I can say that as an Arsenal fan.
Many Startups are Like Plucky Wigan
Wigan manager Roberto Martinez, with little resources or options just kept believing. Defeat after defeat he just kept believing that how he set out the team was right and things would turn good for him sooner or later. They were written off at Christmas by many pundits to be relegated, no great escape this year. Then suddenly they beat a load of top tier teams, Arsenal, Man Utd, Newcastle and were safe.
So many startups and entrepreneurs struggle, work their asses off and get little in return. Again and again you keep going knowing that you've quality on your side and sooner or later you'll come good. You innovate and alter some tactics but you know you've a solid base and a good product. Martinez used what little resources he had extremely well, was endlessly positive and constructive, kept motivating his team when others would have crumbled, may have changed some tactics but stuck to his principles and in the end was rewarded.
The mixture of character, talent, timing and a little luck, over a long stretch the truth comes out. As 19 premiership titles winner, Man Utd manager Alex Ferguson rightly said after his team lost out, "it's a long hard season, and by the end of it, teams are usually in the position they deserve" ie. if you're first you deserve it, if you're last and relegated, overall you probably deserve that too. But remember there's always next year...
Why watch sport? Because when it's good it's theatre that unfolds organically, that no one can really predict, with twists and turns. It's about best laid plans coming to the fore brilliantly or falling to pieces in misery. The great unrehearsed drama, we have intentions and strategies but it all changes when we meet our opponents, a lot like business and a lot like life.
Like Sport, is that not why we ultimately enjoy running our businesses; for what the challenges drag out of us and for the eventual well earned and hard fought for victories?