Changes, Transitions, Endings
How football, organisational change and grief might be related
I promise you I’m not obsessed with football. But this is going to mention football, and my favourite team. Again. I want to talk about change, and I think this is a way of doing it.
A few things have happened lately in the Cymru men’s international football team world. If you’re not emotionally invested, then the short version is that it’s not going well: Cymru is a team in transition and the manager, Rob Page, is under pressure because performances and results haven’t been good.
Gareth Bale, Joe Allen, Chris Gunter and Johnny Williams retired after the World Cup. Gareth Bale was the biggest name to retire, Gunter and Williams were fan favourites but Joe Allen was a vital part of the engine room. Along with Aaron Ramsey Bale and Allen formed a trio which made the Cymru team tick. Arguably (because he’s my favourite player) Allen was the most important member of the trio because of how he contributed to both the defensive, transitional and offensive phases of play. He didn’t score many goals (twice in 74 appearances) but he screened the defence and regained possession, and crucially was skilful and intelligent enough to play effective passes to build the next attack. He did the important but non-flashy work that laid foundations so that others could shine. He was ours and was as important as Gareth Bale, but that he signed for Stoke and not Madrid.
For rugby people, think Taulupe Faletau; understated but just consistently bloody brilliant. Once you saw his work you couldn’t unsee it.
How is this relevant to work then?
So, having such an important player retire is going to have an effect. How will Cymru manage the transition? An important member of the team has left, leaving a gap in the workload and requiring another to take their place. Will the team’s operating style change? Does the nature of the task change? Will the way they try to achieve their objectives change? How will the rest of the team react to the change?
Most of us will have been in situations asking these questions. In the trepidation that arrives with change many things are suddenly thrown in the air. Sometimes a new team member slots in perfectly and does the same or similar role and things are pretty much as they were. At other times, the new team has different qualities and so needs to adjust and evolve to a different style of working.
The cliche runs that the one constant in life is change. It’s often deployed before unveiling the change curve based on Kubler-Ross' modelling of the grief process. The curve is useful enough as it prepares us for the bottom of the curve and teaches us to expect that we and other around us going through the same situation will not always be having a happy time as we progress through the change.
But I also think that the little 3 phase curve that resolves into a bright future like a happy song is too simplistic. 3 phases of a change curve aren’t nearly enough to depict metaphorically how a team responds to change over time as all the effects of change interact.
Answers in the landscape
According to Wales.com, if Cymru was ironed flat its area would be bigger than England (assuming England hadn’t also been similarly made crease-free I suppose). So being in Wales and being able to look out of the window I saw a better way of depicting change curves over time.
The picture above is from Wikimedia Commons, and is titled ‘One Morning in Snowdonia’. You will need to treat the picture like a chart and ignore the vertical axis because we’re interested in the path of the lines, not any values. Read the picture from left to right and you can see a team’s worth of change curves, both progressing positively, negatively and relatively evenly.
Crucially no member of the team here is having an uniformly one-directional progression following a slump. They are all on their own journeys through the change as seen by following the ridges for this snapshot in time.
Not one of the lines crossing the picture is a consistent gradient, they all have ups and downs, and change is not a linear, progressive process. I have annotated the picture to make it clearer below:
Since the change curve is based on the stages of grief it makes sense that grief is presented alongside. As part of the change process it’s also acknowledged that there may need to be a grieving period for the old status quo, especially if the change was sudden.
Grief is a powerful process and I have had cause to examine it over the past few years. The retirements of Gareth Bale and Joe Allen gave me an opportunity to examine different types of grief. My favourite football player retiring is inevitable, and at some point (usually after they turn 30) you get the feeling that their bodies aren’t coping with professional sport as well as they were. A clock starts ticking and you can feel that the end has begun.
When that end arrives, it’s a shock, but not unexpected. I had hoped that both players had one more qualifying campaign in them, as I would have hoped at the campaign that followed the next. But no. We will never see either in the Cymru shirt again.
But we knew this time would come. Cymru are in a period of renewal, having finally laid the World Cup qualification ghost to rest there would always be some transition between football generations. It still hurt though, the losing of the hope that we would see a moment of Gareth Bale magic, knowing that Joe Allen wasn’t there to shore up the midfield, mentoring his young team-mates in the engine room.
They are in our past now. So we mourn. I recognised the stages of grief as they came, especially the hoping that it wasn’t actually true. The denial. But there was no denial once the compilation videos came up on social media; thank you Gareth, thank you Joe.
The truth is though that the retirements of my favourite football players don’t actually affect my life. Yes, Cymru doing well or doing badly puts a spring in my step or makes it rain a little harder, but it’s only sport. It’s entertainment and I love it, but it’s the icing on the cake, it doesn’t actually matter.
I can though be open in my grief at careers passing into history. I can say that I’m a bit upset at the news. I can sit with the news, and I can process it into the hope of a Cymru supporter: We have had it so good recently, and I remember the Gould years and then the Toshack period. Someone will turn up, and as long as they try their best, we will support them whatever the result.
I can do that for football players because it doesn’t matter, but I have to take care how I sit with and hold the grief that I do carry.
About the author
Siôn Owen is a Knowledge Exchange Officer with the Good Practice Exchange Team. Siôn has worked for Audit Wales for 3 years. Prior to this, Siôn worked at a local authority in North Wales.