Lessons for Organizations from a Pickup Soccer Game
Photo Credit Pacific Air Forces
In soccer, business, and politics we spend a lot of time paying attention to what our competition is doing. We should spend at least as much time paying attention to what our teammates and colleagues are doing.
In the first half of my pickup soccer game this morning my team’s defense looked a lot like work situations with which we’re all familiar. Too much waiting and then over-reacting, and not enough communication and clarification of roles. For the first 45 minutes the opposing forwards would barrel down the middle while our two center backs watched and waited for someone else to do something. Then in the last moment, three or four of our players would converge on the person with the ball. The result never resulted in a goal, but that was more due to luck than anything else. It meant that when we did win the ball back we couldn’t keep it – a lot of the people who would otherwise be in a position to receive the ball were defending in a panic. Our disorganization ensured the other team would continue to get chances that we would likely mishandle by under, then over, reacting.
As the half went on we figured out our roles and responsibilities, and at the halftime we had a few brief conversations to sort out the last details. As a result our play was better both in defense and going forward.
We have all seen similar situations in our office. For example, an organization is hosting a public event but there aren’t as many RSVPs as it would like, no one steps up to increase turnout so the problem remains unsolved as the date of the event gets closer. Then all of a sudden half a dozen people start pushing the event all at once. RSVPs might rise, but some invitees may have their email inboxes overloaded (much to their irritation) and some of those sending panic invites were probably not working on their material for the event or preparing for event follow up. There is a task that obviously needs doing, but none of those whose job could be to accomplish the task step up. Then everyone swarms and the task gets done at the expense of other tasks.
The solution in the office is the same as it is on the field. Jerry Hauser, the CEO of the Management Center (and the person who invited me to join this pickup game) put it to me this way when I interviewed him for Soccer Thinking for Management Success:
“Even when your roles are clear, there will be things that are ambiguous and you need to communicate. ("I got it!" "All you ...") I was thinking about an area on our staff where we have two people whose roles are clear, but there's always stuff that's a little murky – and I thought about how when like you have a center-mid and a wing midfielder and a ball comes in-between them, no matter how clear the roles are they just need to talk to decide who's taking it.”
In the office do the same as you do on the field.
- Talk about specific responsibilities early – decide who will do what before it needs to be done.
- Pay attention to what your colleagues are, and aren’t, doing and talk to them as you move to fill the gaps (“I’ll track the guy in the Griezmann jersey, you pickup the runner; I'll take the lead on increasing turnout for the event, you make sure the followup material is ready”).
- Put yourself in a position to support your colleagues’ success – getting people to show up at an event is only the beginning, as your colleagues get bodies in seats see if those in charge of running the event need help or find ways to build on the success of the event.
- Talk a lot. Communicate with your colleagues, tell them what you’re doing so they can put themselves in a position to help you and help the organization succeed.
Even when roles on a soccer field or in an office are clear, they can be fluid. Threats and opportunities emerge that demand immediate action. The best teammates and the best colleagues manage the threats and seize the opportunities by paying attention to what's going on around them, communicating, and positioning themselves to build on their teammates' and colleagues' success.