Elon Musk, Here is How to Transform Manchester United!

Yes. That joke tweet from Elon Musk got our attention too! Those who know Ritesh or me well, know that we are passionate about transformation and love solving our client’s problems through strategic change that leads to organizational growth. We are also huge Manchester United fans.

As some of you may be aware, the club we love has been struggling despite spending over 1.25 billion GBP (almost $2 billion CAD) on player acquisitions in the past ten years! As Manchester United supporters, we have deliberated this progressive downfall, with a few false starts sprinkled in, on several occasions with our football-mad family and friends globally.

As transformation geeks, Ritesh and I have identified the root cause of this decline to be the abandonment of the fundamental principles required for successful transformations – a sharp focus on embedding an effective balance of the Transformation Trinity of People, Process and Technology within the organizational culture.

As Adi Gadwale says,

People in the traditional approach is everything related to people – all stakeholders – employees, customers, regulators, their culture, knowledge, skills abilities, attitudes, norms and values. Process is about the way things get done – the actual steps either documented or unwritten, inherent, robust or volatile, flexible or rigorous, agile and lean or bureaucratic and tedious. Technology is about the tools – the software, hardware, infrastructure, interfaces, integration, security, inter-operability, usability, reliability, integrity of all platforms.

Anyone who follows football, or soccer as it’s known in North America, knows that the current situation at Manchester United is abysmal. However, it wasn’t always this way. Before discussing the current situation at Manchester United with a transformation lens, let’s take you back to a bit of Manchester United history – the United Trinity of Sir Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and George Best – and highlight how they embraced the three pillars of People, Process and Technology, and how that led to success on the pitch.

Sir Bobby Charlton is a true people person, a leader. He cared about his teammates, the club staff, and supporters. He is globally respected by the sporting fraternity as the gentleman of football. Denis Law was focused on process. His football philosophy revolved around scoring goals while ensuring that the opponents didn’t score; he would do what was required to ensure that happened. George Best was a technical maestro with pace, dribbling skills, balance, and tremendous goal-scoring sharpness. He is still regarded as being one of the best players in the history of the sport. Through the balance of these three individuals, they transformed the team and achieved huge successes, including becoming the first English team to win the European Cup in 1968.

Coming back to the current situation at Manchester United.  The continual decline in Manchester United’s performance over the last ten years is attributable to a significant culture shift at the club since Sir Alex Ferguson, who managed United for almost 27 years, retired ten years ago.

Sir Alex again focused on the three pillars of transformation and ensured that people (empathy towards supporters, club staff, players and other stakeholders), process (the football philosophy and methods), and technology (investment in the training ground, stadium and technical infrastructure, including data) were at the heart of the organizational decision-making and culture.

So, what has happened since? How did the dynasty that is Manchester United, the club with the largest fan base in the world and where the best players wanted to play, fall to its lowest point ever?

Gary Neville, a former Manchester United captain and a respected football pundit, passionately discusses in this video the current challenges. They include:

  • A lack of leadership and accountability at the top of the organization 
  • The current owners and past senior executives focused primarily on the commercial side of the business, including investing in marquee players on massive salaries to drive merchandise sales and United’s global social media following  
  • A vacant senior leadership position focused on the core football operations, including scouting and recruiting 
  • Declining team and employee morale due to the lack of leadership on the pitch and the focus on the commercial side of the business 
  • Lack of investment in the training, stadium and football infrastructure, making it difficult to attract high-quality talent

Some might argue that the commercial success of Manchester United over the last ten years shows that the club is successful. Manchester United is publicly listed on the NYSE and has been evaluated by the likes of Deloitte and Forbes as one of the top three most valuable football clubs in the world on several occasions in the past ten years. This may have created a belief that the brand and commercial operations have transcended football and that regardless of the success on the pitch, the revenue will keep flowing, keeping all stakeholders satisfied.

Unfortunately, I do not believe this is the case. The success of the commercial operations at Manchester United is based on the club’s past success over the last 40 years. If the club does not return to its winning ways, those revenues and the share prices will continue to drop. Here are some of the financial challenges that Manchester United are facing:

  • Significant loss of revenue from not qualifying for the UEFA Champions League, the top-tier European competition. 
  • TeamViewer, United’s principal shirt sponsor, has decided that they will not renew their multi-million-dollar sponsorship deal only 18 months into the current 5-year contract.
  • Loss of the younger generations of the fan base to Manchester City (as noted by Athletic), loss of the massive Indian fan base to Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City (as per BeSoccer), whereas five years ago, Manchester United had the largest and youngest fan base in the world.

Back to the issues that Manchester United are currently facing. As discussed above, when working with a transformation client, we focus on evaluating and optimizing three pillars of the organization: people, process, and technology. The Transformation Trinity.

When an organization, or team, can balance all three pillars well, you start to see it achieving its goals and taking everything and everyone to the next level, as the United Trinity and Sir Alex were able to do. If an organization focuses too much on one pillar, that’s when they start to run into challenges. 

Manchester United has done precisely that. They have focused their efforts over the last ten years on people, albeit not holistically. They have continuously changed their management team, coaches, scouts, and players. Focused on recruiting players of global appeal to support the commercial structure by driving merchandise sales vs. performing on the pitch. All this to satisfy the shareholders and the vast network of global sponsors.

Additionally, they have completely ignored the other two pillars – technology and process. They haven’t invested in infrastructures, such as new training facilities or stadium upgrades, and they have abandoned the well-established scouting, recruiting and football operations processes developed over decades. They also have no alignment between accountability, responsibility, and authority. The accountability falls on the Manager, coaches and scouting network, which have no authority over the decisions being made. 

As Einstein’s Parable of Quantum Insanity states, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Manchester United has replaced their manager seven times in the last ten years without the different results they expect. This is because they are not focused on the three pillars of transformation and do not have the appropriate alignment between accountability, responsibility, and authority.

As a Manchester United supporter, I can only hope that significant changes are made to reverse the course the team has been going down in the last ten years. As Gary Neville says in the video, this really comes down to a significant amount of investment being required by the ownership team. If Elon Musk really does buy Manchester United, maybe he could use the points addressed above as a playbook to get them back on track. 

For Ritesh and me, we will be launching a new podcast talking about these three pillars, people, process and technology, and how transformation occurs at the intersection of all three. This will include interviews with industry leaders, transformation experts, and others. Stay tuned for more details soon.

About the Author

Ashiq Ahamed is the Founder & Managing Partner of SolvedAF Consulting Inc., a boutique consulting firm providing fractional leadership, growth advisory, and digital transformation services. As a strategic, delivery-focused leader, he works with organizations to change their thinking when it comes to technology, implementing solutions that achieve organizational efficiencies and improve the end user experience.

Known for his ability to see the big picture, Ashiq draws on his expertise to help organizations align their technology with their business goals. Ashiq was recently recognized as an Emerging Leader by The Peak and was a finalist for CIO of the Year by CIOCAN.

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