Hands up those who knows who won the 1974 World Cup? The answer was West Germany, but unusually it is the team they beat in the final which is one of the most revered and remembered in world football.

I am of course referring to the famous Netherlands team who pioneered Total Football under the management of Rinus Michels and the on-field captaincy of Johan Cruyff. Prior to this, the Netherlands were a footballing minnow, but from 1971 the country’s leading club side Ajax won the European Cup three years in a row and the national side reached the World Cup final in 1974 and 78, all under the management of Michels.

Total Football

The philosophy of Total Football is built upon on the adaptability of each footballer within the team, with particular emphasis on the ability to quickly switch positions during play. The theory requires players to be comfortable in multiple positions; thus retaining the team’s intended organisational structure and allowing them to continue to attack the opposition.

In this fluid system, no outfield player is fixed in a nominal role; anyone can be successively an attacker, a midfielder and a defender. A simple theory, but one that demands intense training behind the scenes to get right and talented individuals to implement on the field.

So what, I hear you ask, does this have to do with training and development within the workplace?

Common Workplace Problems

Have you ever been in the situation within a workplace where you take over from someone who held all the knowledge about a certain task or process and never shared it with anyone? Or worked with a person who is reluctant to delegate work or give up control, as they see themselves as the only people competent at completing tasks? If you have, then welcome to the world of the empire builder; the person who wants to ensure that they are seen as indispensable to the business. Not only are they incredibly frustrating to take over from or work with, they are also detrimental to your business.

Or I am sure you have seen the employees within a workplace who are bored and unmotivated about completing the same repetitive tasks day in, day out. These are the people that don’t get any opportunities to stretch themselves or work on any new challenges and thus become disengaged with their jobs. Their lack of motivation or enthusiasm for the job will also hold the business back.

Total Learning

Now imagine applying the philosophy of Total Football within a workplace context to these common problems. For the purposes of this article, let’s call it “Total Learning”. With no fixed nominal position, the empire builders would not be given the opportunity to erm…, build an empire, as they are constantly on the move and under scrutiny. And in this fluid system, bored and unmotivated employees would be a thing of the past, due to the constant new challenges they would be involved with.

A recent article by Charles Jennings of the 70:20:10 Forum, highlighted that businesses:

“will only achieve ‘breakthrough performance’ and achieve their business goals when employees go beyond individual task performance and demonstrate high ‘network performance’. In other words, we need to plan and work not only at building individual capability, but also team and collaborative and co-operative capabilities”

This is based on the Corporate Executive Board’s ‘Building High Performance Capability for the New Work Environment’ report published towards the end of 2012.

What this means in practice is that businesses must be prepared to look at the current skillset they have within the workforce and which training and development interventions are required to ensure they can up-skill people in multiple roles. This will require detailed planning and commitment; but so did the philosophy of Total Football when Rinus Michels began it in the 1960s.


One example of how the philosophy of Total Learning can be applied to workplace training and development can be found in the excellent book “Maverick!” by Ricardo Semler, in which he talks about the job rotation programme that became institutionalised within Semco. Under the scheme, managers were encouraged to swap jobs with other managers every two to five years and work on this transition up to twelve months in advance.

According to Semler, the benefits gleaned from such a programme were:

it obliged people to learn new skills, it discouraged empire building, gave people a broader knowledge of the business, and allowed people to see situations from another’s viewpoint.

There will always be fixed; specialist “goalkeeper” roles within a business that you could not apply the rotation principle to, which is understandable. But I’m sure there are plenty of roles within each business in which rotation could be applied, but it is having the courage to go against conventional thinking, like the Netherlands in the 1970s that is the stumbling block.


So think about it, if businesses we more geared towards giving training and development that encouraged employees to be comfortable within multiple roles, then it could help to produce a more agile, free-flowing workforce. As well as this, you could also imagine the employees would be more motivated and engaged in doing their jobs and going the extra mile.

Therefore, although West Germany won the prize in 1974, it is the Netherlands team of Total Football that have left the greatest long-term legacy.

  1. Job enrichment on a rotational scale. I love the idea. I can’t help hearing about Holland without thinking – Archie Gemmill! 🙂

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