Sometimes the best approach in the office, as in football, is to 'stick it in the mixer'
A view from Sue Unerman

Sometimes the best approach in the office, as in football, is to 'stick it in the mixer'

With the Euro 2020 final painfully fresh in our memories, let’s turn to another football match that offers a valuable lesson for us at work.

Spain versus Italy in Euro 2020 was a football lesson about the importance of a balance between clarity and chaos.

Both teams played very characteristic football. Both teams scored once during the 90 minutes and Italy won on penalties (sound familiar?).

The Spanish football was beautiful to watch – a case study in the team's trademark tiki-taka play.

We wrote about the spirit of Spain's game in our case study about Spanish player Xavi in our book, Belonging. Describing his role in the game in one of the humblest utterances from a world-class footballer, Xavi said it was simply: “Receive, pass, offer.”

• Receive the ball.

• Pass the ball to a teammate.

• Get yourself into a position where that teammate can pass the ball back to you.

We used this as a great role model for leadership in the office to create a culture of belonging where everyone can thrive. Let’s put aside the brilliance of being able to describe everything that you do in three simple words. Focus instead on what that means for every other member of his team. Xavi’s role here was not focused on scoring goals or on tackling the competition, nor specifically on defence. It’s certainly not about him looking good. It was entirely to be at the service of his teammates.

Truly, if you played for Barcelona at its peak, there was always someone to pass the ball back to, so you didn’t run the risk of being the idiot that let go of possession to the striker from the other team who might score the winning goal.

And for most of the Italy against Spain game on 6 July 2021, this kind of football was on show whenever Spain had the ball. 

Now, you may or may not have a Xavi in your team at work. But in the likely case that you do not, what if, instead, you create a culture of belonging, where the whole success of the business is more important than individual stardom or each person crushing their own KPIs? If you can galvanise the culture in this way, the chances of success over the competition are much greater.

But as we saw, this strategy alone is not always enough. Fans of Barcelona, with long memories, may recall the game in 2012 when Chelsea played Barcelona in the second leg of the semi-final of the Champions League (pictured above). 

It’s probably fair to say that most people who watched the game on the TV in the UK, excluding Chelsea fans, were rooting for Barcelona, home of some of the most beautiful football in the world at that point. 

I watched my partner watch the game. At the end of it, he was yelling: “Just stick it in the mixer!”

I had to ask him what that meant. He said that Barcelona was renowned for its passing game and maintaining possession of the ball. The players knew what worked, and what didn’t work, and played to a system that made them extraordinarily successful, and conquered all before them. It was a system that they refined all the time, but that they didn’t like to deviate from. Unfortunately for Barcelona fans (or non-supporters of Chelsea), the only people who understood Barcelona’s system better than Barcelona were the Chelsea team.

Barcelona's fans were desperate for the team to deviate from its system of keeping the ball in possession and take some chances. To stick it in the mixer (the opposition's penalty area) and not worry about the chance of giving the ball away. 

How many glaring opportunities are passing by because the rigour of the media playbook means that they can’t be proved to work in advance of trying? 

There needs to be a balance between following the rules and justifying actions on the basis of known data, and taking a leap into the unknown. 

Sometimes – most of the time – sticking to the tried system is good and proper. Yet this is based on what we know we know and, as economist John Kay and former Bank of England chief Mervyn King wrote in their book, Radical Uncertainty, “Good strategies for a radically uncertain world avoid the pretence of (certain) knowledge... they acknowledge that we do not know what the future will hold.” 

Or, as we might conclude from the beautiful game, sometimes you need to stick it in the mixer for any chance of a win. Know what you are doing, but also be clear about what you don’t know and when to try something where you cannot predict the outcome.

Sue Unerman is chief transformation officer at MediaCom

Image: David Ramos/Stringer/Getty Images