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Business Book Club: The Barcelona Way

I've set myself a goal to read one self-development book per month. To make sure I really reflect on what I'm reading I extract the wisdom from the best business and personal development books and share it with you.

This month I’ve been reading The Barcelona Way by Damian Hughes

The Book

I’ve been a fan of Damian’s work ever since a former manager introduced me to his first book, Liquid Thinking. So when I heard he was releasing a book about two things that have occupied a significant amount of my brain space over the years, cultural change and football, I couldn’t wait to read to it. I also got to hear Damian talk about his book which gave me further insight into the ideas in the book.
Damian was asked by his publishers to write a book about the impact of culture through the lens of a sports team. After searching for some good examples and deciding between three different teams he settled on Barcelona FC.

The book covers 5 overarching principles for creating a high-performance culture which can conveniently be compacted into the acronym B.A.R.C.A.

  • Big Picture

  • Arc of Change

  • Repetition

  • Cultural Architects

  • Authentic Leadership

    Even if you’re not a football fan the book covers some valuable ideas about how to create a successful culture.


What did I learn?

Why Culture?

In the mid-90s, two business school professors called James Baron and Michael Hannan began a study into the impact of culture on profitability. They studied the flurry of tech startups appearing in silicon valley over a period of around 15 years and concluded that most company cultures fell into one of five categories:

Star Model-Real Madrid: bringing in the most celebrated and talented individuals and keeping them happy whatever the cost, in the belief that their star quality will bring success.
Autocratic-Chelsea: a business led by an influential individual who sets and enforces the standards. Roman Abramovich or Steve Jobs would be good examples of this.
Bureaucracy-Liverpool: management by science, stats and algorithms. The belief that if you follow the data you will be successful.
Engineering-Borussia Dortmund: an approach which subscribes to the idea that if you focus on technical skills and stick to a detailed strategy success will follow.
Commitment-FC Barcelona: the idea of culture, the daily working environment, as a competitive advantage. A commitment to a shared philosophy ensuring each individual acts in the organisations best interests.

Of these five, the commitment culture was the one that consistently created a high performance that endured over time. Pep Guardiola's Barcelona side is considered by many to be one of the most successful football teams of all time, showing that culture isn’t some fluffy idea that’s nice to talk about but an essential component to being successful.
The other reason why a commitment culture is so powerful is that it requires choice. You have to sign up to it. As Damian eloquently put it in his talk it’s a case of FIFO (Fit In Or F***-off), meaning everyone who signs up to the culture is fully on board and travelling in the same direction.

As always, you’ll have to read the book yourself to get the full picture and read some great examples but here are some the key things I took away from the book.

Big Picture

If you’ve had coaching with me or read my blogs you’ll know I put a lot of focus on knowing ‘your why’. This is where the section on the Big Picture starts. Not only does knowing your organisations ‘why’ provide members with a sense of meaning and purpose, but it also helps them to instinctively know how to behave in any situation.

Most companies have a set of values published on their website. While these are well-intentioned they are also so abstract it’s hard for people to know what they actually mean. There are also too many of them for people to remember clearly in many places. I distinctly remember a senior manager in one organisation I worked for used to make us learn and recite the company values, a task which we all struggled to do. You can begin to see why the concept is flawed.

Behaviour not values

Damian suggests that we focus on behaviours, not values as behaviours are values in action. He recommends having no more than three key behaviours for people to focus on and ranking them in order of importance. He gives the example of Disney:
Disney used to think that the customer experience was the most important thing to focus on. But imagine a ‘cast member’ (employee) is in the middle of providing a great customer experience to one customer and a child falls over elsewhere and hurts themselves. Is it OK to break the customer experience to see if that child is OK? Disney realised they were wrong, customer safety was more important. Their top three ranked behaviours are:

  1. Safety

  2. Courtesy

  3. Show (customer experience)

As you can see, these three behaviours are easy to remember and they leave people in no doubt as to how to behave in a tricky situation. Attend to the fallen child first, even if it appears rude to the first customer. Distilling your organisation’s philosophy into 3 easy behaviours may sound difficult but that’s why it’s so important, it forces you to really think about your purpose and finesse the directions you give.

One final thing

You don't flex a commitment culture no matter how prodigious or talented someone is. In the book, Damian gives the example of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. A fantastic talent who originally signed up to the Barcelona way but ultimately refused to fit into a culture focused around their three behaviours: Humility, Hard work and Team First. He was sold after one season at a £32 million loss. Despite the loss, Barcelona FC knew that they couldn’t sacrifice their culture for any individual.

Talent will get you into the dressing room. How you behave determines how long you remain there-Txiki Begiristain

Arc of Change

In order to create the right environment, you’ll need to understand the Arc of Change.

  • Dream

  • Leap

  • Fight

  • Climb

  • Arrive

Many people talk about success as if it’s one positive step forward after the other. Of course, if you’ve ever set yourself a new years resolution you’ll know that after an initial feeling of positivity and euphoria, reality kicks in and your resolve is tested. You reach the ‘sticky middle’. It’s at this point that the work really begins. In his talk, Damian reminded us that all projects look like failure in the middle. Understanding the five stages will help you create galvanising moments that shape how people experience the journey and enable you to sustain their interest, energy and commitment over the long term.


Once you have identified your key behaviours you need to observe and measure them to within an inch of their life. You need to make sure that these behaviours are being demonstrated by every person every day and that you have methods of highlighting when these behaviours are slipping. The problem is that consciously thinking about what to do takes effort and energy and this slows decision making down. One way to overcome this is to create an environment that facilitates the behaviours you want to see.

Feedback loops

Studies have repeatedly shown that when we are presented with data about our own performance we will usually adopt the right behaviour without being told. Creating feedback loops allows people to immediately know if they need to change something they are doing. Feedback loops have 4 elements:

  • Evidence

  • Relevance

  • Consequence

  • Action

Think about those radar speed signs you see in small villages that tell you how fast you are going. I bet you usually slow down if they show you are speeding, most people do. Here’s how they take you through the loop: evidence (your speed), relevance (breaking the law), consequence (possibility of a fine and points on your licence) and action (you slow down). The trick is to incorporate feedback loops into your workplace to nudge the right actions.

Action triggers

This is about imagining every possible scenario and practising over and over so that when a situation occurs everyone instinctively knows how to act. Think about the safety briefing on aeroplanes. You’ve heard them dozens of times before but the airlines still encourage you to listen each time. This is because they don’t want you to waste precious seconds consciously thinking about what to do in an emergency as this could ultimately cost lives. They want the safest actions to be second nature. When a situation arises do your team know how respond?

Keystone habits

Another way to aid quick decision making is to pre-decide how to behave in certain situations and create some keystones habits. For Barcelona FC one of theirs is about possession. When they lose possession the whole team immediately press and try to win the ball back. This is a great time to do it as the opponents will be at their most vulnerable. If they don’t get the ball back within 5 seconds they fall back to plan B (another trigger) and retreat back into a compact 10 man wall.

Cultural Architects

“Culture is what happens when the leader isn’t in the room”-Frances Frei

There are two types of people to look for in your team:

Cultural Architects

Or ‘leaders without formal authority’. These are the people who provide motivation and engagement to others on a daily basis. These are the people who are able to change the mindsets of others. They are self-confident and are able to translate that self-confidence to others. These dressing room leaders will emerge, either through their technical skills or natural charisma and when they do you need to use them.
Psychologist Willi Railo suggests that teams need at least three of these people but no more than five. According to Railo cultural architects cannot be appointed but you can create the right conditions for them to emerge. Failure to do so creates fertile ground for the other type to watch out for…..

Cultural Assassins

As you can imagine these are the people who bring negativity to the team, people who whine, moan and never accept responsibility. These are the people who have a negative impact on the team and change mindsets for the worse. Some are easy to spot but others not so much. Sometimes your cultural assassins are people who were previously good performers. Barcelona FC had this issue with Ronaldinho. Towards the end of his time at the club, his party lifestyle increased and he even began to lead astray more junior players (such as a young Lionel Messi). Despite his fame and status within the dressing room, the club decided to let him go.

Authentic Leadership


The final thing needed to shape a high performing culture is an authentic leader. The term Authentic Leadership is thrown around a lot but what it essentially means is knowing your values, setting your priorities and then behaving in a way that is consistent with them. If it sounds straightforward that’s because, in theory, it is. However when you ask leaders what their priorities are and then ask them to compare those to what they have actually spent their time on in the last week the two rarely stack up.
It’s not enough for leaders to set the direction. They must also role model the behaviours they wish to see and do so consistently.`This is why Ray Kroc, founder of McDonald's, known for his focus on hygiene could often be spotted outside restaurants picking up McDonald's wrappers and cups. You’d be forgiven for thinking that such a task should not be a priority for someone in a senior leadership position but these small authentic behaviours send an important message: we’re all in this together!

Damian finishes this section by noting that:
The point of authentic cultural leadership is not to do great things, but rather to create an environment where the whole group can do great things together.

What did I think of the book?

As I said at the beginning, the combination of culture and football in this book resonated with me so I really enjoyed it. I love the way that Damian has taken an abstract concept such as culture and made it tangible. Each chapter has a number of exercises you can do to examine your own organisational culture, making the book easy to understand and easy to action.

While I go into dozens of businesses every year and experience many workplace cultures it occurred to me that being self-employed I don’t personally have an organisational culture. This got me thinking about whether or not I should have one. I may be a business of one, but the lessons from the book still apply. Being self-employed requires self-discipline and being self-directed. I can definitely see the benefit of having some keystone behaviours to keep me on track and some feedback loops that nudge me to be authentic in my behaviours. I’ll be doing some quality thinking over the next few weeks and adopting some new behaviours very soon. So whether you’re leader of a business or division or an individual contributor this book will certainly give you some food for thought.

What should I read next?

Have you read the book? What did you think? What shall I read next?

If you have any recommendations let me know below or via Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn

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