Sometimes The Problem Is Knowing When To Act

Arsene Wenger and Arsenal have finally parted ways but some commentators believe the move is a season or more too late. When does a problem become critical for an organisation and what are the signs to look for?

Arsene Wenger’s departure from Arsenal at the end of this season marks the end of a protracted period of uncertainty for the North London club.  The catalyst for change was a desire to improve results, but growing unrest among supporters undoubtedly added extra tension and would have influenced the club’s thinking. We’ve already posted a short analysis of the mood of Arsenal supporters in the run-up to the announcement.

In this post we’re exploring the broader question of how organisations deal with a problem which grows over time. The narrative pulls in examples from the non-football world, but stick with it. The message is that the challenge faced by Arsenal was not unique to football. The club needed to understand the intensity and trajectory of a problem which only revealed its full force over time. Many organisations have faced the same challenge and many more will do so in the future.

NOT EVERY PROBLEM IS OBVIOUS

In recent seasons the protesters attached to the #WengerOut movement have been visible and very vocal, but the risk they posed was not clearly understood. At times, the protest was regarded as wallpaper to Arsenal’s season – something that was just there.

Slow-burning problems pose a unique challenge as they are difficult to detect and therefore harder to respond to. An organisation may not realise it has a problem at all; the symptoms are slow to appear, or seem innocuous. At least in a crisis you know what you’re up against. For every United Airlines there are other organisations at risk from problems which develop under the radar and cause a lot of damage if not caught in time.

By way of an example and staying with airlines, the computer outage suffered by British Airways last year angered passengers and generated a lot of adverse publicity. What wasn’t reported was the steady erosion of confidence in the airline’s service standards. The evidence exists in the thousands of views posted by BA customers in social media over the past two years. It is an underlying and potentially serious problem, even if it does not come wrapped in newspaper headlines.

The most recent Superbrands report had BA falling outside of the top 20 for the first time in my memory. Last year’s disruption undoubtedly contributed to the airline’s relegation but there is more to it than that. Something fundamental to BA’s brand value and customer relationships is going on.

Similarly, #WengerOut did not happen overnight and Arsene Wenger didn’t leave his job because of one poor result. It takes time to fall out of love. Even now, a week after Wenger’s announcement and with the benefit of hindsight, experienced football writers are debating exactly when the anger of supporters reached a tipping point.

What changed this year is that the psychology of the Arsenal protest moved from discontent to disillusionment. This change broke emotional attachments and negated the influence of Wenger’s legacy. Supporters had lost faith. Working out when and how this happened is important. Even if Arsenal had staged a recovery in the second half of the season, it would not have reversed the fundamental shift in sentiment. Once trust is gone, it is damned difficult to get it back.

KNOWING WHEN A PROBLEM BECOMES A THREAT

In the early days of protest the Arsenal board did not foresee that #WengerOut would lead to thousands of empty seats at the Emirates. The early symptoms probably appeared to be no different to the usual outpourings of impassioned supporters. Perhaps the club thought they could face down the protest, just as Manchester United had dead-eyed its own ‘green and gold’ protesters in the first half of the decade. What signals could the club have looked for?

PROTEST STARTS WITH A CONVERSATION

‘I don’t like this’. ‘Me neither’.

It could be two people expressing the same views or many more, but once a point of view is shared it signals the start of a debate and the possibility of a new consensus.

Thereafter it becomes a question of understanding the size of the community engaged in the discussion and its composition; is the criticism coming from a hardened minority or are new voices joining in? I’m reminded of a campaign when a client had concerns over the reactions of a particular community. Research established that the issue was not contagious; the people we expected to complain did so, but their views did not gain traction with the client’s broader customer base. The campaign continued and I believe it is still running today.

As well as measuring the number of people engaged in the debate, we can also examine the networks through which views are transmitted. Influencers are important broadcasters of a message, but equally important are the ‘connectors’, who occupy key positions in a network and control the flow of information. Their positioning means they can also connect different communities together. People and organisations who act as connectors are the arbiters of organic reach.

We recently published some further observations on network behaviour for the debate on ocean plastics. Sir David Attenborough and the Blue Planet team were the cardinal influencers, but the global spread of public activism was facilitated by a network of small organisations and individuals acting as connectors.

In Arsenal’s case, #WengerOut became a significant force once influencers and connectors within the Arsenal community started working in tandem in January 2018. Between September and March, the number of individual supporters using the #WengerOut hashtag increased by 600 per cent. The audience for #WengerOut posts increased by 900 per cent over the same period, demonstrating that influential high-reach and well-connected accounts had joined the protest.  #WengerOut alone did not force Arsene Wenger out of Arsenal, but it did make it harder for him to stay.

LESSONS: 

There are a number of practical steps organisations can take to mitigate the risks of an evolving problem.

  1. Crisis prevention is the priority. Crisis management is a last resort. Even if you are the most loved brand in the world, run regular health checks on the thoughts and feelings of customers. Don’t wait for the problem to come to you.
  2. If there is a problem, define it and explore the cause. Is consensus building in a particular community, however small?
  3. Measure the emotional charge of the debate and how feelings are changing; A strong reaction motivates people to engage more and stimulates new action.
  4. Analyse the size and composition of the community engaged in the debate. Check for evidence of contagion. Are more people attracted to the community? Are views and feelings gaining traction in other areas?
  5. Validate the need for intervention early. There have been suggestions that the high point of the #WengerOut campaign was reached in March, but evidence suggests the momentum of the call for change had passed the point of recovery two months earlier.

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