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 Instinct may lead us to focus on  finding a quick solution to the crisis. Total Football suggests otherwise.

While still in the afterglow of Saturday’s glorious Champions League final, here are some observations on the similarity of soccer and crisis management.

In the 1970s the Dutch soccer coach Rinus Michels—first with Ajax Amsterdam and then the Netherlands national team—developed a new approach to soccer strategy. Known as Total Football (“Total Soccer” for Americans) it reached its pinnacle with the 1974 FIFA World Cup team and its embodiment with striker Johan Cruyff.

Total Football is usually understood as the idea that players rotate into different situations which requires highly technically skilled players at all position, a task made possible by Ajax’s famed youth system. While the 1974 team never reached its zenith (it lost to host Germany 1:2 after a legendary second half of non-stop attacks on the German goal), its approach to soccer has found modern heirs in CF Barcelona and Arsenal London. Cruyff is the connecting link in this lineage, first as player and then as coach of Barcelona, which also established a famed youth academy, La Masía. In the 2010 the three finalists for the FIFA Ballon d’Or (formerly known as the World Player of the Year award) were Andres Iniesta, Xavi (Hernandez), and the eventual winner, Argentinean superstar Lionel Messi. All three were La Masía graduates.

Neither Arsenal nor Barça play total football. Barcelona’s style, also known as Tiki-Taka, is characterized by ball possession, extensive (short) passing, and constant movement, but lacking the extensive player rotation typical of the Dutch approach. But Total Football has another characteristic. Players do not intend to score directly, but rather to increase the overall chances of scoring. A sense of space and movement is critical for this approach. Both Cruyff and Barcelona’s midfield master strategist Xavi have repeatedly emphasized the importance of space and movement. This leads to extensive passing even close to the goal rather than excessive dribbling and low probability long-range attempts. Some observers are critical of this approach complaining that the teams try to “carry the ball into the goal”, but that’s the idea: rather than go for the goal, maximize the opportunity space, the room to maneuver.

So, what does this have to do with crisis management? It becomes a useful analogy when dealing with a reputational crisis, especially during the all-important first 24 hours. As I have argued in Chapter 1 of Reputation Rules, during a reputational crisis a company is “on stage”. Customers, employees, business partners, and other stakeholders are all paying particular attention to the company’s actions. But in most cases the company is on stage only for a very short time—often no more than 24 hours, a consequence of a much accelerated media news cycle. Companies may wish to be out of this spotlight as quickly as possible. But this is a misconception. Getting out of the headlines is desirable only if the last impression by customers, stakeholders, and the public is positive rather than negative. Otherwise, a negative impression will tend to stick in the mind of observers with few opportunities to correct it. After all, public attention has now moved on to a different topic.

But this creates a conundrum. During the first 24 hours it is virtually impossible to establish even the most rudimentary facts about an incident. Yet, without a response or a “no comment” statement observers will draw negative inference (lack of transparency, commitment, empathy and so forth). The solution is to take a lesson from Total Football. Our instinct (the direct path to the “goal”) may lead us to focus on trying to find a quick solution to the crisis. But a more promising approach is to put this desire aside and instead attempt to create a trusted process to get to a solution, e.g. by setting up a task force, bringing in trusted third parties, commit to a schedule with updates and so forth. The point is to create much needed room to maneuver, not a quick shot on goal. Another advantage is that it is much easier to prepare for setting up processes than for anticipating solutions.

This approach, however, is counter-intuitive for many managers as (in their day-to-day existence) they are used to solving problems quickly and competently. Resisting this impulse requires discipline and teamwork. Watching Barcelona play is a pleasurable reminder of this insight.

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