To be perfectly honest the only reason I turned on the tv for the men’s FA Cup Final was because I fancied watching it. And I was really glad I did because unlike a lot of cup finals it was a fantastic game. Manchester City thumped Watford six nil. It was enthralling to watch – unless you were a Watford supporter in which case you were probably left lamenting why, oh why, you hadn’t got respectably and quietly knocked out back in February or March.
But it turned out the most interesting thing about the match was the discussion in the tv studio afterwards. There were expressions almost of incredulity that Man City had gone on trying to score more goals long after there was any need. Even in the last ten minutes the pressure had been relentless. By that point in the game no opposition on earth would have been able to wrest a draw from the game never mind win it but from the way they were playing you might have thought City were on the losing end.
So you could see that on the face of it surprise at this was an understandable response. One thing City obviously didn’t need was more goals so why go on behaving as if they did? This struck me as a real question not a rhetorical one. What could possibly justify the input of such effort when the output it was delivering was so obviously surplus to requirement?
Well odd as it sounds one thing that must have been true for City in that last ten or fifteen minutes at least is that the result didn’t matter a tuppenny wrap. If all that mattered was winning the game then the team would have relaxed – kept possession but wound down the effort. Something else was driving them on and whatever it was the impetus wasn’t coming from the score-line.
In a nutshell, the players’ motivation can’t have been instrumental. Instrumental action ceases once its purpose is fulfilled. When the screw’s secure you discard the screw-driver. You don’t hold down the switch on the kettle to keep it boiling. You raise your foot on the accelerator once the car’s up to speed. Unless you’re Man City.
Or unless, fundamentally, you’re not engaged in an instrumental task at all. And it may be an ambiguity about that which gave rise to the pundits’ incredulity. Perhaps the experts in the tv studio were taking an instrumental view of what City were doing: This was a football game, the purpose was to win it, the score line’s 6-0 at 80 minutes and in light of all this the team’s behaviour makes no sense.
But my hunch is that’s not in the least how the City players were thinking. The way they were playing had very little to do with instrumental thinking and a whole lot to do with agency.
To achieve top quality performance it’s never enough simply to do the right things; you need the mindful concentration of the people in charge of the instrumental actions. That’s agency.
My guess is that the Manchester City manager would have been watching his players like a hawk during those last ten minutes not in the very least because he was on the look-out for another goal but because those circumstances were a real test of agency. The game is won: huge distraction. And this is the FA Cup Final: further huge distraction. ‘The double’! Monster huge distraction. How able are these players to stay mindful and focused? It was that – not yet another goal – that he’d have been looking for.
So it turns out there’s quite a bit to be learnt from football. And thanks to it, here’s a couple of bold statements for discussion: High quality has its roots in an attitude of mind and the quality of any organisation is in direct proportion to, and a direct expression of the quality of its agency. Furthermore, the reason initiative after initiative in some organisations fails to drive up quality is because the person leading them is thinking instrumentally and without the due and necessary regard for agency.
Chris Thomson, Education Consultant and former sixth form college principal.