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Soccer Explains Everything, Again September 27, 2011

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics, strategy.
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Lately I’ve had the good fortune to work with people who’ve helped me look at organizational dynamics in new ways. Here’s an item based on a parable from a manager I’m currently working with.

I’ve never coached youth soccer, but, for those who do, this should sound familiar. At first all the kids chase the ball, basically forming a scrum that moves all over the field. Later, with some coaching, they begin to play their assigned position (e.g., forward, midfielder, defender), but tend to stay glued to a small area on the field and wait for the ball to enter their zone. In time, they may reach a higher level of performance where they’re more mobile and adaptable on the field, helping each other attack and defend without losing sight of their assigned responsibilities.

This analogy can be used to characterize organizational maturity. As a firm grows in size, there’s a natural differentiation of tasks and responsibilities, for example along the lines of sales / marketing, product / service development, operations / supply chain management, finance, and customer support. People may start out wearing multiple hats, but eventually this will evolve into separate and specialized departments. This differentiation enables the departments to focus on their assigned element of the overall value delivery chain, and the natural tension between the departments helps ensure a balanced, optimized outcome.

In the scrum model it’s all-hands-on-deck, and the boundaries between functions aren’t considered important. On the plus side everyone is aligned, but on the minus side it’s not an efficient use of resources, and there’s bound to be some confusion over roles and responsibilities. In soccer there’s only one ball, and if everyone is trying to kick it at the same time, you’re going to expend a lot of energy without making much progress. There’s also a greater risk of a breakout by the other team as the scrum is less adaptable to sudden changes. If you’ll allow me to switch analogies for a moment, in rugby a side would never send all their players to the scrum (even if the rules allowed it).

That being said, I’ve always hated working in organizations where everyone stays in their assigned place, assuming that someone else will put out that fire burning over there. “Yeah, I know there’s a problem, but it’s not my job, and I’m not going to get involved.” This is typically accompanied by a demonization of other departments that de-values their contributions and blames them when things go wrong. “I did my job, if we failed it’s not my fault.”

What every organization should be working toward is an operational strategy where everyone pitches-in and initiative is valued, while respecting boundaries and honoring the specialized contributions of all functions. In my career I’ve worked in every functional group except finance and HR, and that’s given me some appreciation for the role that each department is expected to play. Rotational assignments in other functions are a great development opportunity, but not always practical; fortunately rotations are not the only way to build a collaborative culture. It starts at the top: senior leadership and functional managers must model the behavior and reward cooperation and teamwork, just like a good soccer coach.

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