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Gorilla Theory Case Studies: Project Team Leadership Skills
Project Management Leadership - Managing Manchester United “When players start speculating in their own minds whether the manager will be fired, it is not the beginning of the end. Often it is the end.”
Matt Dickinson, The Times, UK

David Moyes - Managing Manchester United

In the first Gorilla Theory book, 'The Art of Avoiding Project Delivery Disaster' I made a few references to sporting examples of managing complex projects and their outcomes. For example, I gave the case study of the Miami Heat, reigning NBA champions. They had assembled the almost dream team of LeBron James - universally acknowledged as the best, most complete player of the moment, NBA winners ring owning, swashbuckling shooting guard Dwayne Wade, and very talented and productive Power forward / Center Chris Bosh.

In their first year together, the Heat were favourites to go all the way and win the NBA title. They got to the finals but were beaten by Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks. Analysts pointed to the failure of the Heat: such talent and falling short. In particular, the coach Erik Spoelstra and LeBron James came in for criticism for not getting the best out of such a strong line-up and faltering as a leader and game-winner on the biggest stage respectively. Harsh, bet significant levels of truth in both accusations.

The Heat of course, corrected their failings and have won back-to-back titles. The attacking trident of James, Wade, and Bosh have gelled and excelled to have seen off Oklahoma City Thunder in 2012 and San Antonio Spurs in 2013.

With a team laden with such firepower, the coach Spoelstra was given time to get it right in 2012...but they did get to the final at first attempt with the "big three".

How much time will David Moyes be given to turn around the ship that is sailing down the path to wild implosion? When he accepted - on personal recommendation by Alex Ferguson himself - the post of manager of Manchester United, he was taking on the kind of Silverback project scenario that overwhelms the best of manager.

As manager of Everton, Moyes was lauded for the stability he brought to Goodison Park. He built a team that finished regularly in the upper reaches of the Premier League, and had even qualified for European competition on a few occasions. He was manager of Everton in many games against Manchester United, but while he would have noted much about Manchester United's players, style of play, coaching staff, his focus was on his own team.

Manchester United's season is veering towards relative disaster. Reigning Premier League champions, they are nowhere close to being able or likely to retain their title, have been knocked out of the domestic cup competitions, and are on the verge of being eliminated from the Champion's League (the premier European knock-out competition). The same players who delivered the league title by 11 points are collectively under-performing and the team style of play is predictable and lacking the incisiveness of past Man Utd teams. The main factor that has changed (apart from the wear and tear of ageing) is the change in management.

As soon as he accepted the position, to take over from Sir Alex, Gorilla Theory dictates that Moyes should have immediately started brainstoring a plan of attack and gathering as much insight and data as possible on the players, particularly the players thoughts and perceptions on the impact of Alex Ferguson no longer being their manager and chief motivator and disciplinarian.

I would assume that Moyes did the first part (brainstorming a plan of attack and assessing the players at his disposal), but I am betting he wasn't thorough about the last part - dealing with the human side of the situation. How his players felt about losing Sir Alex, and what they hoped for in the new regime. It is often the case that the human element is the most important factor in explaining poor performance, or a project failing to deliver.

The respect that Sir Alex had built up over his time leading Man Utd was and is immense. Very few managers could have come in with anything remotely approaching the level of respect and honours that he had gained. Moyes has never won a major trophy and so had it all to do to win basic professional courtesy and functional respect from his new squad. To win them over, giving them confidence in his plan of attack and his plans for the future, with an honesty that there may be some significant troughs and bad times in the transition period would mean that when results were negative or the team performed poorly, there would be a solidarity and understanding that they were a team going through change and that they had a gameplan to get back to the summit of the Premier League.

“At Manchester United it felt like something snapped last night, and that something may be impossible to fix.”
Matt Dickinson, The Times

Man Utd lost in abject fashion to Olympiakos in the first game of the second round (25th February 2014). The players seemed bereft of confidence and cohesion, being defeated by one of the weaker teams left in the competition. In terms of the remainder of the season, all seems lost, lowest points total in the Premier League era, no silverware won, and finishing out of the qualifying places for the Champion's League.

The power and impact of effective working relationships built on trust and credibility cannot be underplayed. How many of the current players do you feel are (in football vernacular) 'playing for the boss'?

The season can be saved - to an extent. The Gorilla Theory solution? Tradition and perception be damned, Moyes needs to call a summit of players and coaching staff and lay all cards on the table:

- what is going wrong?
- what are the negative perceptions
- what is going right?
- suggestions for better performance

The above may alienate certains player further and reduce levels of respect for Moyes, but wouldn't he be better served at least having a better understanding for why the players are perfoming consistently poorly? I would assume that though Moyes may have his supsicions why the results have been middling, there are some things that would not have occured to him, and some things that can be easily fixed. It would mark a signiicant departure from the totalitarian methods of Sor Alex Ferguson, but an open and honest discourse may serve Moyes well. It would help to formulate a plan to close the season in better fashion, and lead the re-building plans for the summer. Moyes will also learn more about his players commitment (or lack thereof) to Manchester United with him at the helm.

Without commitment from the players, any remedial plans for finishing the season as strongly as possible are useless, and Manchester United will play with the same inconsistency and achieve the same below par results as currently the case.

Sir David Brailsford, Head of Performance for British Cycling and Team Sky joined British Cycling when it was not the pwerhouse, serial Olympic gold medal-producing, world-renowned organisation it is today. He has said the following about team commitment:

“Actually the commitment is to the suffering and toil involved in getting to that goal - the monotony of training, the strict diet, the restricted lifestyle. You might be driven by the desire for the goal, but if you're not committed to what it takes to reach the goal, you're never going to get there.”
Dave Brailsford

Gorilla Theory team leadership Tips

Avoid the same fate as David Moyes whether you are taking over a team, joining a new team, or creating a new team. Information and clear communications are the bedrock of trust, and team members need to have an amount of trust for each other and definitely for the team leader or project leader(s).

Your leadership action plan is:
  1. establish exactly the project scope/business mission you are supposed to be managing or leading (create a bespoke project checklist to ensure you ask all the right questions and are absolutely clear.
  2. establish who your project team members are, the roles they play and their take on the project scope, project status, and their thoughts on risks and issues.
  3. establish who your project team members are, the roles they play and their take on the project scope, project status, and their thoughts on risks and issues.
  4. articulate to the project champions and key stakeholders how you work, what you expect from them and ask them what they expect of you. Establish how you will work with them and for the project.
  5. articulate to the project team members (and any third-party suppliers or external help) how you work, what you expect from them and ask them what they expect of you. Establish how you will work with them and for the project.
  6. stay disciplined in maintaining your communications channels with project champions, project stakeholders, and third-party suppliers. Set regular reminders for yourself.

How to spot a Baby Gorilla
Baby gorillas are projects that are deemed small and straightforward, and it is assumed that enough information is known of what needs to be done (the full requirements and delivery specifications) to get the project delivered, but these details are either not gathered, defined and approved, and (usually) not enough time is given for the delivery. Baby gorillas tend to be media campaign, HTML newsletter, microsite, site/page update-style projects.
Got a great case study or question?
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All the Gorilla Theory project scenario solutions are supported by a checklist mechanism. The checklist mechanism supports the core principles of:

And don't forget to use your checklists!
We have tailored the Gorilla Theory checklists for each of the three problem scenarios. You can buy the project checklist pack or the full checklist pack: click here >

Useful Software
Useful Project Management Software
You are forewarned, so be forearmed. Check useful tools for managing your projects.
The Troop
Several projects on the go? Worried about how to cope successfully? Find out how.
The Silverback
The big beast of a project. Find out how to know you have one, and how to avoid being crushed by the sheer power. Learn to tame one.