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VAR in Business: The weight of decision-making

Well. It’s official. VAR has cost Newcastle the Champions League.

Ignore the fact that AC Milan scored an 84th-minute winner on Wednesday night. That’s beside the point.

It was the controversial handball against PSG in November that took our fate out of our hands. Kylian Mbappe doesn’t miss. An away win in Paris would have surely seen Newcastle continue in Europe. But VAR had something else to say about it.

It always does.

Depending on which side of the coin you’re on, it’s starting to feel like VAR is sucking the joy out of football. As a supporter of any team, you don’t have to think back too far to find a time when VAR has caused an upset.

But why is this such a trend? And how do they keep getting it so wrong?

The truth is, like in business, VAR is nothing more than a few people making a decision. We seem to think they’re getting it wrong all the time. But that’s because focusing on the negatives is so much easier.

It’s just like in business. How many times has a report turned in on time or a sales quota being met been overlooked? You don’t get plaudits for doing your job. That’s what’s expected from you. But get it wrong; you can guarantee you’ll hear about it then.

Let’s review another example.

4th November: Newcastle vs. Arsenal. The Gunners are on an unbeaten run in the league. The Mighty Mags are on a high after knocking Manchester United out of the EFL Cup. The scene is set for what should be an end-to-end, exciting game of football. So why have so many people claimed VAR ruined it?

Three incidents needed to be investigated surrounding the 64th-minute winner:

  • Was the ball out of play?
  • Did Joelinton foul Gabriel?
  • Was Anthony Gordon offside?

Each of them was looked at closely by the VAR officials, and each of them was deemed okay. The ball stayed in. It wasn’t a foul. He was onside.

And if they’re the decisions made by the officials – the ones paid to be in the driving seat – then surely that’s what we need to accept. Right?

The problem is that none of these questions are clear-cut. They’re not yes or no. There isn’t a tick box you can fill in or a multiple-choice option. They’re subjective. They’re instinctive. Often based on a gut reaction.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it…

As a business leader, there isn’t a week that goes by where you don’t have to make a big decision. You’ll bounce your ideas around beforehand. Sound things out on your TAB board. Try and come to the right conclusion. But the reality is you’re never going to please everyone. Just like the officials in Stockley Park, you have to analyse the evidence and go with what you think is right.

And nine times out of ten, there will be backlash…

Dealing with the outcome of your decision-making is part of life. The best way to be prepared for this is to be 100% confident in what you’re doing. If you’re staking your business on something, be prepared for the questions that are going to come your way. Know why you’re doing it and what benefit you believe it will have.

And for heaven’s sake, don’t ever just make a decision because you’ve got a match referee in your ear saying the players are getting antsy…

Of course, there will always be decisions that could have gone either way. Sometimes, you don’t have the complete forecast. You’re going off previous learnings and assumptions. Or a defender was blocking the best camera angle.

On these days, you’re going to get home, unlace your boots and have a niggling feeling in the back of your head that you’ve made the wrong call. But you have to live with it. More importantly – you have to learn from it.

Don’t let the pressure of decision-making compromise what you think is right. If you need to, take more time with the process. Write a few more pros and cons. Ask for a few more opinions. Figure out where you might have slipped up and analyse that incident to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

If there were a secret method you could implement that guaranteed you made the right decision every time, it would be trapped in a bottle and sold at a very high price. But there isn’t.

Decision-making is a fluid process. It changes daily, and just because something is correct one week doesn’t mean that it will remain the case a month down the line.

One of the most important assets you can have as a leader is the ability to adapt and improve. We see it every weekend – the 4th official makes a blunder over the offside lines, and next week, you can guarantee they’re stopping games for five or six minutes at a time to make sure they’ve drawn the lines right. Only for them to miss a blatant handball in the box ten minutes later…

But that’s life! And that’s business. You iron out one mistake, and another one crops up in its place. The key is steady, consistent improvement.

TMOs in rugby are now widely respected and trusted individuals. But you can guarantee they didn’t start off that way. VAR will eventually find its place, but that will take time. So we keep working on it. We keep letting ourselves get frustrated at the weekend, and we keep turning up on Monday morning, believing that, eventually, that breakthrough will come. Because trust me, it will.

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As we reflect on the challenges and lessons of decision-making in football and business, let's take a moment to unite in the spirit of hope and goodwill. I wish you all a very Merry Christmas, filled with peace, happiness, and the courage to make the right calls in life and work. May this bring you closer to achieving your goals, just as we strive for fairness and improvement in every game and decision.

Merry Christmas!

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