Yesterday, the Iceland football team qualified for the World Cup in Russia ahead of Croatia, Turkey and the Ukraine and in doing so became the smallest ever country to achieve that feat. Iceland has 330,000 people, almost non-existent football league, a very small number of recognisable players, weather that could be considered ‘not ideal’ and an economic legacy of near Armageddon. They have continued on from the European championships where they not only qualified but managed to beat England 2-1 (TV rights for English football $18b AUD). 10 years previously they were ranked 120th in the world and their best ever result was a 1-1 draw with Turkey.
In summary; they have very little money, huge restrictions in their talent pool, conditions which don’t provide a natural advantage for success, no legacy of success and they exist in an area of huge competition. They have nonetheless, achieved a transformation so remarkable as to be quite unbelievable. If the situation sounds similar to many corporates, that’s because it is.
So what would the Icelanders recommend
1) Have a plan and stick to it – on the field Iceland have a style of play which is entirely based around what their players can do, they play on the counter attack and don’t try to take on the bigger teams at their own game. They are rigorous in training, coaching and managing players to fit to that system. In a recent game against Turkey (a 3-0 win), they had the ball for only 25% of the time but still managed to score three goals. Their game plan is based around every single player knowing the job they have been given to do and executing it well.
Off the field it is the same, they designed the transformation of the game which required players, coaches, the leadership and even the fans to buy into an approach and a design and every decision was taken to support that. For example, they had a long term coach who built a succession plan to the current coach which started 5 years ago. They resisted the temptation to change the structure or the resources after a few bad results. Their 10 year plan was to create a new system to support the the game overall, invest at all levels, pick the style and the approach for playing and build everything around that.
How often do we change around structure to fit to a new direction and how often does your company build a strategy or transformation plan?
2) Change needs to be everywhere – the problem was not viewed as simply as the Icelandic national football team being bad. The approach was not to spend lots of money on the team itself rather, to see the challenge as football in Iceland as a whole. Much of the investment has been on coaching young children, providing facilities and a system to support everyone. Women’s football, youth teams, children’s teams are not treated as anything different.
For example, young children in the system are able to go and train with a professional club and anyone is allowed to apply to be a coach. Accordingly, Iceland has the highest number of coaches per capita of anywhere. The investment and the engagement is spread across the whole organisation.
How often do we in organisations think about how to transform the whole business? The view is that scale of the challenge is so big that it needs to split into boxes, new teams are created or devolved from other parts. The strategy process and the planning sits with the higher levels and the steps to get there are communicated down rather than built up. The England Manager is on a salary of $5m AUD, but that’s not where they should necessarily be putting the money.
3) Change the dynamic of your constraints – one of the biggest challenges for Iceland is that the winter is cold and extremely dark and at other times, they have huge amounts of rain and low average temperatures. Manly Beach in the Spring it is not, and their beach volleyball team is extremely ropey. As a Scotsman, I can appreciate the astonishing natural advantage Australia has for playing sports outside but you have to imagine Sydney with the weather of Glasgow. It would be a different place and would need a different response.
Iceland though have changed the dynamic completely. The have built a series of huge, heated indoor halls with full football pitches rather than small practice ones. They have made access to these easy, cheap and have put investment into ensuring the experience of going to these halls is as good as it can be. There is actually an incentive to go to training when the weather is bad.
To add to this, they have taken a very small player base relative to other countries so they’ve applied a real ‘hothousing’ approach to manage and nurture talent. They have a learning pathway for development built off the range of coaches and the successful ones are managed into programs overseas. One of their players recently sold for $70m AUD (Glyfi Sigurdson).
The lesson here for corporates is to not to try and be something that you aren’t. I’ve had this conversation with a number of corporates; ‘we need to be customer centric’, our ‘customer experience needs to be best in class’, ‘we have to be agile’, ‘we have to get best use from our data’.
The trouble is, everyone says the same thing and everyone is trying to do the same thing. It therefore becomes a factor of investment or commitment. What would be the Iceland Football team answer?