Freddie Ljungberg and the transformative power of context

“For there is nothing either good or bad,
but context makes it so”.

Not quite William Shakespeare, but close enough


Back in the days before they moved to the Emirates stadium and became mid-table dreck, Arsenal had a player called Freddie Ljungberg.  Ljungberg has always held a particular fascination for me and my pals, as his career was marked by a spectacular drop-off in form when he moved from Arsenal to another Premier League club, West Ham United, in 2007.

Pretty much overnight he went from being one of the finest players the league had ever seen, to a nondescript journeyman who wasn’t able to hold down a place in a far inferior team.  After one undistinguished season at the Hammers he threw in the towel and moved to the States to play for the Seattle Sounders – a new low where once again he failed to stand out.

Now of course players lose a level or two as they get older, but Ljungberg was only 30 when he moved to West Ham; an age when many are hitting their peak.  As a result we are left with a bit of a mystery: how could he be one of the best players for a top team, but then a couple of months later notbe good enough for a lesser team?

The answer is what I want to talk about in today’s piece, namely:

How by changing the context of something, you change its qualities.

What does this mean?

Well, we are used to thinking of things – people, businesses, objects, etc. – as having fixed and objective qualities.  To use Ljungberg as an example, in 2006 we may have thought of him as a “top class footballer” – and indeed he was.  Based on this belief, it was logical to assume that he would be a top class footballer wherever you put him – and indeed that his abilities would only become more pronounced when placed amongst inferior players.  In the event however it appeared that the opposite was true: that his level of mastery wasn’t “baked into him”, but was rather activated by a particular context (playing for Arsenal) – and that when removed from that context his level totally changed.

In other words Ljungberg had a particular “bag of qualities” which manifested as one thing in one context, and as another thing in another.  By moving clubs he became a totally different player even though he was exactly the same person.  Intrinsically he was neither master nor fool; he was instead dynamic potential which could take on different forms depending on the external frame.

This idea is important because it doesn’t just apply to Ljungberg – it applies to everything and everyone.

Our performance and status is always dictated by two things:

  1. Our inherent qualities
  2. How those qualities interact with our present context

This means that if we want to change our performance and status we have two levers to pull: the obvious one, which is to change ourselves, and the less obvious one, which is to change our context.

Typically we put far too much emphasis on the former and not enough on the latter.  If we or our business are in a bad spot our first instinct is always to think about how we can improve, and what we can do differently.  We rarely think about whether perhaps we are just fine, and that it is the context (or “frame”) that needs to be changed in order to unlock our potential.

Thinking about this in terms of my projects with clients, I would say that the solutions are generally a blend of around 50% changing the business and 50% changing the context.

There is an almost magical quality to this, as it is often impossible to unpack all the subtle ways that framing can allow something to flourish.  Returning to Ljungberg, if his variability had been down to something basic like being played in a different position, then there would have been no mystery.  However there is so much more that may go into it:

  • His relationship with the players around him
  • The nature of the coaching sessions
  • The dimensions of the pitch
  • The differing attitude of opponents to his new club
  • His emotional response to playing for West Ham rather than Arsenal
  • Etc.

This isn’t to say that these were all important – who knows, maybe it was just that he had a longer commute to work or something – it’s simply to say that we cannot fully understand.

Similarly when I worked with the cereal bar brand Eat Natural, who have now sold to Ferrero, we discovered that their performance was highly variable to the context they were sold in.  A particular strength relative to their competitors was their performance in “dirty” convenience channels – things like train stations, motorway service stations, vending machines, corner shops and the like.  I could write you an essay on why that might be – the competitive set, the type of shopper, the need states, the influence of price, times of day with high traffic, visibility, etc. etc. – but suffice to say it’s beyond our ability to grasp completely.

Bottom line an Eat Natural bar is a different product on a station platform than it is in the cereal bar aisle of a big Tesco, just as Ljungberg was a different player at West Ham.

Finally let’s not forget the personal in all this.  Each and every one of us, just like these two, are bags of qualities which have the potential to thrive or wither in different contexts.  This is much bigger than simply matching our abilities with our tasks – doing jobs we’re good at etc.  It’s more a question of being in a context where we are “activated” or “deactivated” in a holistic sense; where we feel a sense of mastery, or flow.

We are different people day to day, moment to moment, depending on where we are and what we’re up to.  So if we want to change, it’s good to remember that context is the easiest way to do it.

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