The Class of '92: Great Teamwork Applied

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By Mike Conway, CEO & Founder of XVenture

Organisations worldwide spend considerable time, energy and resources trying to find an answer to the question: What makes a great team? Imagine if we could get a really clear handle on this. Imagine the impact on results and outcomes. This article considers two significant and very different pieces of work that may help answer some of those questions. The first is a movie from the UK, and the second, a scientific study from the USA.

Manchester United v Juventus - Gary Neville's Testimonial Match

Photographer: John Peters, Collection: Manchester United, Getty Images.

1. "THE CLASS OF '92"

One of my favourite films of the year is a documentary titled "The Class of '92". (fulwell 73 Productions 2013) "The Class of '92" shares a rare insight into six players of the Manchester United team (Butt, Beckham, Giggs, G Neville, P Neville, Scholes) who broke all the record books in the World game. A game that has in recent weeks brought together people from across the globe, and divided many too, with the focus being the World Cup in Brazil. (I disclose that I grew up not too far from Old Trafford and have been a Manchester United supporter all my life!)

My interest in Benjamin and Gabe Turner's documentary "The Class of '92" is not just due to my sense of connection with the story of six young footballers which Sir Alex Ferguson and Eric Harrison, the head of youth coaching, had masterly brought together. My interest and curiosity has also to do with the lessons we can take from the movie, on how to foster and build a great team culture. Having now watched the movie many times, all my analysis confirms there are many. The documentary is a rich lesson for any organisation attempting to foster great teamwork.

2. THE NEW SCIENCE OF GREAT TEAMS

An article published in the previous year also provides some significant insights and lessons on what makes a great team. "The new science of great teams" written by Alex 'Sandy' Pentland was published in the Harvard Business Review in April 2012. (Harvard Business Review Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation April 2012)

Pentland who heads a research team at the Human Dynamic's Laboratory at Massachusetts's Institute of Technology attempted to analyse the science of great teams. After reviewing 2500 individuals, he suggested that the mystery of the "chemistry of high performing groups has been lifted", "the key to high performance lay not in the content of a team's discussions but in the manner in which it is communicating." (A Pentland, HBR, 10 Must Reads on Teams. 2013) In other words, it's not what we communicate, it's how we communicate.

In my work as a coach and in my clinical practice this resonates considerably. We know and understand that clear communication can exist without uttering so much as a sound! Non- verbal communication provides as much as 90 per cent of what we communicate to each other: our body language, the shrug of a shoulder, the movement of our eyes, the change in colour of our face in response to a situation. It's all communication. I regularly tell people in my clinical work and in my work with teams, that just because someone doesn't say very much, they're still communicating! Paul Scholes, one of the "Class of '92", is a prime example. Known as a 'quiet lad', he communicates in many more ways than what he says. What comes out in "The Class of '92" is his wicked, dry and often quiet humour.

Tone, timbre and speed in the delivery of a message can be the difference between calm and anxiety states. Manchester United became known as a team who won many 'big' games in the dying minutes. The 1999 European Champions League Final is a prime example. Despite the pressure of the situation and time running out, the team remained calm and focused throughout. This resulted in a seemingly impossible win against Bayern Munich in the last 60 seconds of the match. At the most recent XVenture Challenge the winning team's captain was asked what was the reason for their success. His answer: calm under pressure.

WHAT MAKES A TEAM CLICK?

Despite coming from different places and different backgrounds, '..We all sort of clicked.' (Ryan Giggs). Whilst we often can't put our finger on what makes great teams click, there is typically unique buzz between team members. There are several moments in "The Class of '92" where this clearly emerges. The 'class' meets in a restaurant in Manchester and the love and care for each other is infectious. No great scriptwriter could manufacture the magnetic connection the six clearly have. What is obvious about the team is the shared sense of fun. In a previous article I made the point that teams that have fun do seem to work better together (Mike Conway, XVenture finds the secret of what makes a great team, June 2014).

Gary Neville, Phil Neville, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and David Beckham share their own thoughts and insights into the strength of the team and their teammates. Despite each of them achieving what all of us in every day life would consider 'star and celebrity status', they are so clearly proud and connected with each other. Often humble about their own contribution, skills and talents, they push their other teammates forward as critical to the team's success.

Pentland identifies three key elements of communication that are critical to a team 'clicking' : energy, engagement and exploration. 'How team members contribute to a team as a whole'; 'how team members communicate with each other; ' how teams communicate with one another.' (Pentland: pg 26-29) When a team makes necessary adjustments to their communication to try and achieve their team ideal, their performance improves dramatically. (Pentland: pg 16). Using special badges worn by team members that collect electronic data, (sociometrics) on aspects including gestures, interruptions, tone of voice, balance of listening and talking. Together this provides a pattern of communication within the team.

Here are some of the key findings of the study. Team members:

  • Talk and listen in roughly equal measure and make contributions short and sweet.

  • Face one another, and their conversations and gestures are energetic.

  • Connect directly with one another, not just with the team leader.

  • Take part in side conversations within the teams.

  • Periodically break, explore outside the team, and bring information back.

'With remarkable consistency..the most important predictor of a team's success was its communication patterns. The researchers could fortell which teams would outperform simply by looking at the data on their communication. ' (Pentland page 16). In other words, it is more significant to establish successful communication patterns and shape a team to apply these rather than just a focus on the quality and talent of individual skills.

Many will say that this is obvious and already well known. However, the extra layer of knowledge that Pentland and team have identified includes empirical evidence that:

  • 35% variation of team performance relates to face-to-face exchange;

  • a balance of 50:50 talking and listening improves the performance;

  • side discussions actually help team performance

  • social time can lead to 50% of positive change in communication patterns.

As important as anything emerges a clearer picture on what makes a great team player. These 'charismatic connectors' give equal time to all, connect team mates with team mates, engaged with listening as well as talking. Not always extroverts but happy to meet people. The more of these people in a team, the more success.

OBSERVATIONS FROM "THE CLASS of '92"

Throughout "The Class of '92", most of these elements emerge explicitly and all implicitly. The 'lads' know each other so well and know how each other communicates, and communicates together both on and off the pitch.

'Six young lads enjoying life,' all with obvious skill, talent and a love and passion for the game of football. All from working class backgrounds where hard work and a dedication and commitment to a cause is important too. Throughout the documentary, there are many examples of each of them working at their craft. Be it Paul Scholes practicing 60 yard passes, or David Beckham setting up tyres for targets to 'Bend it like Beckham.' Eric Harrison makes reference to Gary Neville not necessarily being the most talented footballer, and Gary Neville admits this too. However, his dedication, hard work and drive made him into a footballer of international quality. Success doesn't come just from luck and great communication. It is necessary to have a certain level of skill too.

THE IMPORTANCE OF ESTABLISHING GROUND RULES

The Manchester United culture and philosophies like many other football clubs, are rich and unique. As well as being extraordinary coaches, Alex Ferguson and youth coach Eric Harrison act as the messengers and the custodians of this rich history, ensuring these were clearly understood by each of the Class. 'You were massively aware of what you were representing: the history.' (Gary Neville)

Sir Alex and Eric nurtured a group of young people who were all very different. From our own work we often observe the mistake team leaders make in choosing people just like themselves rather than finding unique people who can be bonded together with a common purpose, philosophy and communication processes. The documentary draws out the unique personality of the Class, but also demonstrates how each embraces the individualities of the others. Sadly, this isn't something that always happens in teams. In "The Class of '92", there is a wonderful blend that integrates the uniqueness of each. The six are clearly close, having many significant shared experiences, both on and off the field over many years. Each individual character is important, yet not as important as the team.

'There was not one piece of jealousy between any of us. We all had each others' back,' (David Beckham).'I was loving it.' (David Beckham). 'Just playing a game of football with my mates.' (Paul Scholes).

In 2013, Sir Alex Ferguson released his autobiography. The book provides a unique insight on what in his view makes a great team. He places value on those who aren't scared or frightened when faced with a big task. A level of self-confidence is therefore essential. The 'Class' understood and were committed to the Club and what it represented. They were committed to the team principles, and committed and loyal to each other. They were 'inseparable' and 'carried the spirit of Manchester United inside them.' (Alex Ferguson, My Autobiography. Pg 340 Hodder & Stoughton. 2013)

OBSERVATIONS ON THE 2014 WORLD CHAMPIONS - GERMANY

In the aftermath of the World Cup, Michael Calvin wrote a wonderful article in the Independent on Sunday reflecting on the success of the German National side that has now been crowned World Champions of football. He draws a parallel between the All Blacks team who won the Rugby World Cup in 2011 and the German team who have just won the World Cup in Brazil. 'Each espouses a collective mentality which diminishes the distractions of individual brilliance. The team is the star; the system is sacrosanct. They allow others to be diverted by mawkish sentimentality, excessive emotion or an inappropriate sense of entitlement.' (Michael Calvin, The Independent, Sunday 13 July 2014, pg 23). He confirms like those at MIT, at Manchester United and those that have ever been a part of a special team, character as well as talent with low ego delivers a much more effective result. This is where 'mutual trust and respect evolves naturally,' (Michael Calvin, pg 23). Phil Neville reflects on the team culture driven by Sir Alex and Eric Harrison that a team who works hard with dedication will always overcome a skilful but lazy team. This was a fundamental part of their being.

CONCLUSIONS

The lessons from both "The Class of '92" and Pentland's article may appear in the first instance obvious. So obvious, that for many teams, the principles are still the exception not the rule! Reviewing "The Class of '92" as a case study on teamwork, provides a rich resource of learning. Pentland and his team's work on teams is significant too.

In our work at XVenture we continue to observe those teams performing more effectively have these similar communication patterns. They have a defined way of communicating, like being with each other, have a shared sense of purpose, embrace each others' differences, are confident and decisive in taking risks together and have a lot of fun. Our recent article on the 'Good Institute' team who so decisively won the XVenture Challenge of February 2014 confirms that you don't have to be a Manchester United to apply such principles. (Mike Conway, XVenture finds the secret of what makes a great team, June 2014)

By Mike Conway, CEO and Founder of XVenture (c) 2014

Feel free to make contact with the author to discuss this article: mike@xventure.com.au

(C) Copyright 2014 Michael Conway. All rights reserved.

Acknowledgements

With thanks to Harvard Business Review Publications and to David Soutar and the team at fulwell 73 productions.

Thank you also to Getty Images.

"The Class of '92" is available on iTunes and Amazon. On DVD in Australia via SBS and Universal Pictures in the UK.


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