Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Lunatics running the asylum

During the 2010 FIFA World Cup, The French National Team, made up of some of the finest footballing talent in the world, many of whom had been world cup winners in 2000, crashed out of the competition in a spectacular act of self destruction.

Some claim that the (astrologically obsessed) Raymond Domenach, Team Coach, had "lost the respect of the dressing room".  Others claim that all the team decisions were being made by a cabal of senior players.  The quote that best summed it up came from one of the junior members of the coaching staff, who said that "the lunatics were running the asylum".

Recently, I heard the exact same phrase used by a partner (former partner, to be fair) of a large firm spiralling towards oblivion - "the lunatics were running the asylum".

Domenach's team had some of the most talented individuals in world football - the problem was that they were neither a team nor where they Domenach's.

Partnership is, itself, a strange beast.  The concept of the professional partnership was formed back  in the annuls of history, when small numbers of like minded professionals sought to co-operate to advance their mutual interests.

Going back to my football analogy, a bit like a group of friends or colleague, all of who want to play football, setting up a local team.  The formation of the team creates a body to which they may belong.

The model of partnership fostered a collegiate atmosphere with equity aforethought.  Partnership worked as the number of constituents was small, their shared a common endeavour and were happy to be both individuals but equal.

Local team, jumpers for goalposts, playing for the joy of playing.

Even today, small or niche firms or local teams exist perfectly happily within this model.  Co-operating to advance a mutual interest.

Whilst Domenach's team still only had 11 players on the pitch at anyone time, it's stakeholder constituency is exponentially larger than that of a local team.  Supporters, government, sponsors and a whole football federation all had expectations, investments and were answerable to. 

Unlike the local team, Domenach's squad we're more transient members of the team - coming in and out though performance or, often, their own wont.  There was no longer a nucleus of shared interest.  Players competed not just for places but for profile.  Without a nucleus, a team needs leadership.  Management with a clear and well communicated objective which put the team ahead of any one individual.  Such as Alex Ferguson at Manchester United - no player, no matter how good, no matter how big their profile, comes ahead of the team or the club.

Otherwise, behaviours become less social, individuals compete for dominance within the team rather than for the team. 

This also happens at some larger law firms.  Top legal/client relationship talent has a premium and is transient.  The mutual co-operation becomes less important but the owner/manager/player nature of partnership not only protects those who exhibit bad behaviours but, in some cases encourage it.  The way in which profits are distributed can encourage individual advancement over the firm progress.  Two excellent pieces this week by TheNakedLawyer and The Law Society Gazette demonstrate how this can manifest itself.

So how forward? We, you could become a full corporate, crystallise ownership and separate ownership and management.  However, does this really still foster Individual creativity that a partnership encouraged?  Some, at organisations that have undergone the change, would argue that it doesn't. Creativity gets lost in process and layers of governance.

The Big 4 Professional Services businesses are still partnerships.  They encourage and foster individuals to advance and innovate. However, when I asked a Big4 partner how it worked he responded "The only time I really get to exercise my power is when I vote for the new managing partner.  Once elected he is the boss". Clear leadership, providing direction.

Recently, at the Young Vic, Michael Sheen played Hamlet.  It was set within an asylum.  Characters being patients, staff or doctors.  The patients took over - it didn't end well.

Each organisation has to find its own structure but to survive needs clear leadership.  If not then we may have "...variable service, two dishes, but to one table: that's the end" (Hamlet IV ii)

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