Blog: Selecting the next Man United manager

Selecting the next Man United manager – some tips from best practice decision-making.

With the season coming to a close and with newsprint and airtime to fill no doubt there will be plenty of discussion and advice for Manchester United on how to go about picking the next manager to replace David Moyes (and the shadow of Sir Alex Ferguson). There will be a lot of opinion, and a lot of talk of potential candidates. So how would professional decision-makers go about it?

Step 1 – Establish the decision context
The context may seem to be obvious, but its worth spelling out some points to make it explicit, and to check that the decision-makers are ‘on the same page’ before going much further. Questions that need to be answered include:

  • Who cares about the outcome?
    • Who are the stakeholders? There are the Glazer brothers of course, and the shareholders. The players perhaps, and the fans? What about the press and the pundits?
  • Who is going to make the decision?
    • Presumably the Man Utd Board, led by its Chairman. Anybody else who needs to be consulted or involved in any way, and if so how and when?
  • When does the decision need to be made?
    • The Board have bought some time here already by installing Ryan Giggs in a temporary role until the end of the season. But the summer transfer window is crucial, and if its true that £150-£200m is available to spend on new players, its clearly better if the new manager is established before signings take place.
  • What are the key events that lead to this decision point?
    • This is well known, but worth restating (if only because much of it was true a year ago). A highly successful manager (Sir Alex) has been replaced after 26 years. His successor (appointed by Sir Alex) has been replaced after 1 year. The team is seen as urgently needing investment, and morale is low. Failure to qualify for the Champions League means it will be harder to attract sponsorship deals, and harder to attract quality players to join the squad.

Step 2 – Identify the objectives and criteria
Again this may seem obvious, in which case making these things explicit should be easy. And if its not easy, then its definitely worth doing. Lets start with the objectives.

  • Presumably the primary objective is to qualify for the Champions League next year, which means winning the FA Cup or qualifying in the top 4 of the Premier League in 13 months time. But what if candidates will only apply if they are given 2 years to rebuild and achieve this goal, is that acceptable?
  • Another objective (I would guess) is for a manager who can create the confidence necessary to recruit great players, and keep them during the rebuilding phase, with at least a year away from Champions League football

So given these objectives, what might the criteria be? One particular aspect of this decision is the context of the supporting staff, including management, coaching staff and scouts – any new manager has to fit into this context, and some managers may bring supporting staff with them. In the real world we would do this criteria development with stakeholders in a workshop. But since this is the world of ‘fantasy football decisions’ I will offer this list:

  • Ability, as demonstrated by results in a rebuilding context
  • International experience
  • Communications ability, to include the players and the press
  • Fit – can the prospective manager and any entourage he brings with him (or her) fit with the existing structure, or can the structure be readily adapted?

Assuming we are doing this before we have a list of candidates (which is preferable, as the criteria should form the basis of the search), we can then develop scales against which a candidate can be measured for each of these criteria.

3. Weight the criteria
We can now carefully weight the criteria, in a workshop involving the decision-makers. This step is quite straightforward for the participants but does need to be done carefully and led by a trained facilitator, to ensure that the relative weights are valid.

4. Identify the options
The options here may simply be different candidates for the role of Manager. But it could be a bit more complicated than that, as some candidates may want to (or insist on) bringing some of their management team with them. So for example Candidate A may be ‘solo’, while Candidate B brings either a full retinue of staff, or just some of them (leading to options B1 and B2). So the evaluation needs to take that into account.

5. Score the candidates against the criteria
Again this can be finalised in a workshop involving the decision-makers, but generally much of the work can be done in advance if the scales have been developed in a way that enables objective scoring. (The equivalent of goal-line technology can be useful here, in the guise of your helpful facilitator).

6. Examine the results
The modelling will now show a preferred candidate, or perhaps show that more than one are close. We can visualise the results in different ways, and explore the sensitivity of the result to the weights on the criteria. Perhaps one candidate does very well on one of the criteria, but another performs well on a different one, so we can look at the key trade-offs. The main point is that the decision-makers can explore the results, look at them different ways, and ideally come to an agreed conclusion. It often happens that an individual gets to see via the model that a strongly held opinion about one aspect does not in fact change the overall result.

7. Decide!
The modelling should not make the decision, it should inform the decision-makers (the referee gets the input from the linesmen but his decision is final!)

So will Man United follow this process? Probably not, but if they can move towards a measured approach focused on carefully thought-through criteria, they will have moved a long way forward from how they did it the last time.

One thought on “Blog: Selecting the next Man United manager

  1. In an article in Wednesday’s Times Danny Finkelstein (aka @Dannythefink, or Lord Finkelstein) writing on the Moyes situation argued that there were three unspoken assumptions, all applicable beyond the realm of football, and all untrue:
    1) It is possible to make sensible judgements about (e.g. football managers’) performance over very short periods of time
    2) That any changes in fortune of an organisation are down to its leader
    3) If a decision doesn’t turn out well, it was the wrong decision

    I considered referencing Finkelstein in my initial blog post, as he and a group of academics known as ‘The Fink Tank’ perform a lot of data analysis in the football world, and he often uses that data to counter prevalent myths (such as the importance of scoring a goal just before half-time). They have analysed the performance of football managers over long periods in an attempt to assess whether any managers perform better than others, having compensated for other factors such as the cost of the squad. I recall that two managers stood out in this regard, one was Sir Alex Ferguson, and the other was David Moyes.

    Finkelstein argues that Moyes should have been given longer, but that is taking a statistical and data-driven view of the world. It seems clear to most commentators that having ‘lost the dressing room’ Moyes battle was with stronger forces than statistics (and of course the short-term data was all against him). Perhaps Finkelstein’s data does suggest a basis for his initial selection, but I am sure some wider discussion, testing of assumptions and collective application of judgement would have been a safer process.

    Point 3 is worth thinking about. Imagine that (say) Louis van Gaal is appointed in the summer, and manages to qualify for the Champions League next season. Van Gaal becomes a hero, and Moyes confirmed as a ‘loser’. Now imagine that instead of Moyes, van Gaal had been appointed 12 months ago. What outcome would we expect? It seems quite conceivable that with the now obvious squad weaknesses, that the club could be in the same negative position right now. So van Gaal would be fired, and then perhaps David Moyes might be seen as a strong contender for the role…?

    Point 2 is interesting in the context of another article in the Times that same day, by James Ducker. Apparently on the return flight from Greece after United’s embarrassing 2-0 defeat to Olympiacos, David Moyes was reading ‘Good to Great’ by Jim Collins. From memory, Collins did find a correlation between good leadership and success, but he also found that the most effective leaders were not the ‘heroes’ of common expectation. From yet another Times article in the same edition (by Oliver Kay), United are now looking for a candidate who is ‘strong, autocratic, domineering’. Perhaps the Man United Board should be reading ‘Good to Great’ too.

    And finally, yet another Times article by Mike Atherton on Thursday asks whether Ferguson will talk about due process, corporate diligence and succession planning when he starts his lectures at Harvard. However, Atherton goes on to suggest that based on recent experience in the world of cricket, a thorough search does not guarantee a better result. He also points out that Mourinho gave a PowerPoint presentation to the Chelsea directors to get his job, and Brendan Rogers put together a ‘dossier’. Yet more evidence (if any were required) that the worlds of sport and business are converging?

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