What went wrong at Manchester United – and what can you learn?

Moreover, the loss of a highly successful management team that knew how to win compounded a more fundamental lack of succession planning on the pitch. 

Although players such as Chris Smalling and Phil Jones had already been brought in as eventual replacements for defenders such as Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, there were no ready replacements for midfielders such as Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, and Michael Carrick – reflecting a culture of investing in youth and a refusal to spend big in certain positions.

A question of scale

Unfortunately for Moyes, he ‘fixed’ before he knew where the challenges were, but equally, it could be argued that he was not afforded the ‘extra time’ so infamously associated with Ferguson to deliver on his vision, or for the benefits of his change to be realised.

Alternatively, it could be argued that the change he brought about was too disruptive and that his ideas were too radical for a club steeped in tradition and with a culture based on stability.

Perhaps the biggest issue was the scale of change necessary. What has transpired at Manchester United is not a transition, but a major transformation. And it has been an abrupt one. 

In business, best practice is to manage such a transformation carefully – you communicate, you line people up and listen to their concerns and you help get them over the line by focusing on the positives and obtaining buy-in to your vision. 

However, there have been reports that several of United’s players (and the board and shareholders) had not bought into the new vision, or lost faith in the strategy being implemented for achieving it. At a club that has had a stable structure for 26 years, it was always going to be a case of making radical change and allowing it time to deliver, or make smaller incremental changes so that the project would not prove too disruptive. 

Either way, the importance of a strategic approach to succession planning and business change, and how that change is communicated to personnel on the ground (or on the pitch) cannot be overstated. 

In order for a project or programme of business change to be successful, it needs strong stakeholder management. It also has to be well resourced, with clearly-defined and articulated success criteria, and continuous monitoring and measuring of the goals and objectives agreed between stakeholders and senior management from the outset.

Ultimately, change has to be sustainable, which is why change projects or programmes must be recognised and managed strategically, rather than short-term and tactical. 

Even in football, regulation such as financial fair play and with aspects such as shareholder value at stake mean that management is no longer simply a case of ‘out with the old and in with the new’, but requires a much more considered approach.

Brian Ford is an associate director at LOC Consulting.

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