Holland’s Total Football and Pixar: what can they tell us about team work?

Published in ODI\’s internal Blog

Holland’s Total Football and Pixar: what can they tell us about team work?

So, Holland lost yet another World Cup final at Soccer City in Johannesburg. Their third final, 32 years after the loss against Argentina when Mario Kempes scored two unforgettable goals to defeat Holland 3-1. In South Africa they lost to a better team, Spain, and with a deserved goal by André Iniesta at the 116th minute.

Holland lost, but not every loss is a defeat. In 1974, Holland lost against Germany their first World Cup final 2-1. However, despite that loss, they managed to change the way football was played forever. Led by coach Rinus Michels, they stormed the World Cup with their Total Football which defines a tactical theory in which any outfield player can take over the role of any other player in a team. A player who moves out of position is replaced by another member of the team, thus retaining the team\’s intended organizational structure at all times. In this system, no player is fixed in a nominal role and anyone but the goalkeeper can be successively an attacker, a midfielder, and a defender. The Dutch club Ajax pioneered this tactic from 1969 to 1973 and the national team brought it to worldwide attention at the 1974 World Cup.

Total Football success depends on the adaptability of each footballer within the team, in particular the capacity to switch position quickly depending on the on-field situation. The theory requires players to be comfortable in multiple positions. The star of the national team, Johan Cruyff, played as centre forward but in reality he wandered all over the pitch wherever he could do most damage to the opposing team.

A combination of team spirit, players\’ adaptability, organisation, and multiple skills is Total Football secret. This marked a clear departure from the system of fixed roles and skills that defined football up to the 1974 World Cup.

The same principles have marked the success of Pixar, a computer animation studio. In a recent article in the Economist (Planning for the Sequel, 19th June 2010), the description of Pixar\’s approach to creativity has many elements in common with Total Football. First of all, Pixar puts people\’s versatility and creativity before projects. Hollywood studios usually define the project and only then hire the teams that turn them into movies. This resembles the football tactics of the pre-1974 era, when field roles where fixed and team would acquire players with skills that matched the required roles. Pixar, on the other hand, first hires creative people and then provides them with the freedom to experiment and generate ideas. They work in the same way as the Holland football team who played in an organised and creative way around Cruyff, supporting each other.

Another important characteristic of Pixar is that it devotes a lot of effort to getting people working in teams. In most companies, people collaborate on specific projects, but pay little attention to what happens elsewhere. In Pixar the sense of collective responsibility is applied to a different way of working: staff show ideas or unfinished work to their colleagues during daily meetings and receive feedback. This nurtures a culture where colleagues get used to giving and receiving constructive criticism. The inspiration for this came from an unlikely company: Toyota, where employees are required to provide feedback on its production lines to prevent flaws.

The article states that the aim of this system of constant feedback is to bring problems to the surface before they mutate into crises and to provide creative teams with a source of inspiration. Directors are not obliged to act on the feedback they receive from others, but when they do the results can be impressive. This requires versatile teams where colleagues are not separated into compartments that reduce exchange and feedback. As in the Dutch team, when Cruyff left the midfield to attack, a teammate would take his position to cover up the defence and vice versa. Feedback on the pitch did not require meetings but just a quick move within the established and agreed system.

It is therefore not surprising to learn that Pixar also requests that employees conduct post mortem (interesting name for After Action Reviews) once their films are complete. Usually these meetings are simply to self congratulate. Pixar, however, demands that each review identifies at least five things that did not go well in the film as well as five that did.

There are of course limits to how much these methods can guarantee success or prevent thing going wrong. While, I cannot recall a Pixar movie that did not go well, Toyota recently recalled thousands of cars in the US market due to technical problems. Holland, in the end, lost three World Cup finals despite the Cruyffs, the Neeskens, the Reps. While they did not manage to lift the World Cup, they achieved something more important: bringing players\’ versatility and creativity to the forefront and involve them in all aspects of the game within an agreed set of rules, thus inventing modern football. Pixar, by adopting similar principles and team spirit, transformed from a small company that was pioneering digital technology for animation in 1979 to a major division of Disney.

What can we learn from all this? Can development research organisations and development organisations use flexibility in the same way as Pixar and the Dutch national team? Can ODI apply some lessons from these experiences? I believe we can. Research institutes like ODI can fall pray of what Gladwell calls in his What the Dog Saw, the \’talent myth\’, which assumes that people make organisations smart, while more often than not, he argues, it is the other way round. Creativity requires freedom, but freedom does not require anarchy. As shown by Pixar and the Dutch national team, creativity can benefit from an agreed system of critical feedback, versatile roles, and flexible decision-making. While individuals have specific strengths or expertise, a flexible set of skills allows team members to play different roles in different projects. Lastly, if we don\’t indulge in self congratulation and look beyond the fences of our sector to sectors that may seem unrelated to ours, we could find better team working models to produce better products and services, reduce (not eliminate) risks, and increase the impact of our research.

So maybe next trip or study tour rather than to Vietnam or Tanzania or the UN in New York should be to Emeryville (California) to Pixar\’s studios or to the Ajax football school in Amsterdam.

2 thoughts on “Holland’s Total Football and Pixar: what can they tell us about team work?”

  1. Great blog, Arnaldo! Encouraging internal creativity and setting up systems for bottom up learning is exactly what we are trying to do in the Accountability in Tanzania (AcT) programme when introducing our civil society partners to Outcome Mapping.

    We are working on a learning piece to discuss this. Will share with you shortly!

    To the uninitiated, KPMG and ODI are partners in AcT, which is a DFID financed programme to support CSOs doing accountability work in Tanzania.


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