What we can learn from football

There is much we can learn from football in relation to management and team work. If you can read Dutch, you can learn much in that sense from the book by a former Dutch minister, Peter Winsemius. He who wrote a book about leadership within a business context based upon the wisdom of the football master and oracle Johan Cruijff. In this blog, I'll give my own view on how we can learn from football.

Besides his football successes, Johan is famous for his convoluted sayings such as “You’ll only see it once you understand it”. In Dutch “Je gaat het pas zien als je het doorhebt” (which is the title of the book that I refer to). Another famous saying of Cruijff was: “Italians can’t win from you, but you can lose from them”. In this year’s World Cup, I think the Italians lost from themselves, but let’s put that to the side.

Johan and Dutch football became famous for Total Football, a term basically not used within the Netherlands itself. But it’s a basic concept of how to play the game that I learned in my youth as well. It basically means that if you have the standard position play of 3-3-4 and that if someone leaves his position (creative action or emergency assistance), that someone else will need to take his place (help each other out; maintain the construction).

It is similar as to a sliding puzzle where you move a piece into a vacant place. Total Football (or Catenaccio for that matter) is understanding the need to maintain a consistent construction but allowing creativity through team members moving away from their position while someone else will follow up by filling the gap.

In an effective team in a work situation this happens as well. Key to this, is first of all that there are clear roles defined and that the roles together form a coherent system. In addition to this it means that everyone should understand which roles there are in the team and also have the ability to play another role. This all forms part of the design of the team. In work situations, too often roles are not clearly defined or people don’t exactly know what the roles of others are. It is even more difficult to assure that there is redundancy in skills. Sometimes there are a few very specialist roles where you really rely on the individual with his specific knowledge. It is then important that everyone understands this and plans accordingly. It is too easy to plan your project in which you rely only for a small task on this specialist who normally performs his task promptly, almost in stealth. But if you forget to ascertain his availability at crucial times, your plan will fall apart.

But this is not enough as we saw this year with the French team. It also means that you need to help each other out and are willing to do so, even if it means doing something that is not part of your job description. An example is what we did in our team where we say that “everyone forms part of the service desk (help desk)”, meaning that if a customer comes with a request you don’t send them away with “I don’t know” or “not my job” but take the issue and ascertain it lands on the desk of the right person.

A good football team consists of some hard workers and some creative players. If everyone is the strategist or creative soloist, then nothing would come out of it. You have the creative dribblers such as Christiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi or Arjen Robben. However if they only keep going solo, then you’ll end up in a situation that they will just lose the ball all the time. Other team members will get frustrated and will stop running as soon as the soloist receives the ball. Passing the ball and being happy for others to score goals is important for team success and to keep the opponent guessing about what you will do next.

The creative dribbler can only be successful if there are other team members who are willing to assist, similar as in the cycling sport. Though the Tour de France in theory is about which individual makes his round through the country in the least amount of time, there are teams with front men and cyclist who are there to help the front man to win the race. These assistants are the guys who will waste their energy by picking up food and drinks or will do the hard work at the front of a group and sacrificing their own chance to win the race. Not everyone can be a Special One.

In a good team, you give credit to those who did the hard yards or came up with the original idea. You need to avoid always getting in the lime light yourself even if you are the team leader. Too often people and managers are obsessed with their own status and power play and forget their team. Ruud Gullit, captain of the winning Dutch team of the European Cup in 1988, said that team members were willing to make sacrifices, not only for the team but also for others. Great success comes with great sacrifices. And there is no sacrifice more difficult to make than to stand aside for someone else to shine.

I like to end this post with one of Johan’s sayings “Football is simple: you are either on time or too late. If you are too late, you should leave earlier”. Translated to a business context: “Plan your work”. And finally one for the current Dutch team who in German style have achieved much possession time in the group stages: “If we have the ball, they can’t score”.

Improve your multi cultural soft skills

With the growing globalisation we see that teams are usually built up of people with many different cultural backgrounds. I counted the other day at least 10 different cultures within my direct team.

Communication is important within any team and for IT this is not much different. One of the best things our HR team ever did was to organise a Multi Cultural Awareness training. It was really good to see how people from different cultures have different expectations from their manager and how they communicate differently.

The training was facilitated by Joost Thissen from the “cultureresourcecentre”. I was a bit surprised with Joost’s strong Dutch accent (I hope mine is not that bad). Aren’t we supposed to be so incredible multi-lingual? But Joost has an enormous energy and can also be very funny. The accent just contributed to the whole experience.

Attending the course was for me a great enjoyment and you won’t lose your attention during the training. I received the same responses from many colleagues and within our organisation we reached an incredible high attendance rate.

Now this post is not a sales pitch for the cultureresourcecenter, however given the cultural context that we all live in these days globally, a training such as this is basically a must. You can’t get it much better.

Ideally this type of education is already included of the curriculum of primary and high schools globally. But as long as we don’t have one large homogenous global culture, I strongly suggest to consider this type of education for yourself and for your team.

A typical mistake that managers tend to make according to Joost, is that managers think a training like this is not required for themselves but more for their staff. On their website, she explains however that misalignment in expectations of staff and managers around “management” is one of the key problems. If managers are not attending the course and are not willing to take different cultural backgrounds into consideration into their management style, you will continue having the same problems as before. (See: “I did it my way” )

I found that some aspects are very recognisable, but I obtained also some great new insights. The most interesting thing was about Brazilians who have a mix of western and eastern culture but also some very specific own styles. Having worked for a manager with Brazilian background for years while myself being Dutch in all respects, I finally could see how the pieces fit together.

Another aspect came to mind and for which we did not have sufficient time to work out in the course was about people grown up in Australia but having a different cultural background. While on the outside they behave and communicate like Anglo-Australians, they still carry much of their other heritage within themselves. This can potentially be confusing for themselves and for others.

If you feel that it is important to work well together and get the most out of your team, understanding cultural differences will improve work atmosphere and your team’s effectiveness.

Does working in IT bring its own extra stress factor?

Recently I watched a TV show “Stress – Portrait of a killer” on Australia’s ABC. It explained, based upon research by Robert Sapolsky and others, that people lower in the corporate hierarchy, in general, have a higher level of stress.

Bashir Mamdani reports in  “The social hierarchy of health

Two different models have replaced the old idea that managers at the top of the hierarchy are under more stress than people below them. The demand control model posits that stress at work is not caused by how much demand there is, but how much control there is in relation to demand. The second model suggests that imbalance between efforts and rewards are the determinant of chronic stress.

This made me think. Since IT in most organizations is a service department and does not have a purpose by itself, would that make IT staff feel to be lower in the ‘hierarchy’. And if so, would that induce more stress with IT staff?

On websites such as CIO.com you read much about CIO’s who need to change or the great divide between the business and IT. It seems a relentless battering of IT not meeting the expectations. Though we (us in the IT industry) are convinced that we have an equal strategic and operational role as any other department, in general we are positioned lower in the hierarchy: as a service provider and to deliver what has been asked for.

Would the position of the group transpose itself to the individuals in the group and therefore cause a higher stress factor? It probably will to certain extend, depending on your role within the group.

I can imagine that it would apply to IT service desk staff who, for example, support desktops and have face-to-face contact with their customers. Not only are they at the end of the production line of IT solutions, they can feel being positioned within the IT department as being lower in rank and on top of that also have to deal with all the quirks and whims of the users within the business when things are not working correctly (or do not seem to work correctly).

I wouldn’t be surprised either if the same would apply to the CIO in comparison to his C-level peers. Or to other IT managers within the hierarchy who need to deliver the services to the various departments.

On the other hand, many other IT staff who have less interaction outside their own organisational structure, would have the ‘normal’ stress as per ‘normal’ hierarchy. In some cases I could image you would feel having much control, specifically if you are a specialist. Being the specialist allows you to be creative in your field and control what you do and how you do it, while most others might not even have a clue what you are doing.

But there can be other stress inducing factors as well. For example, I found in the past that Database and System Administrators quite often came across stressful and tended to smoke more than for example software developers. That is of course not a scientific observation and just more in relation to the people that I worked with at that moment in time. But I felt that I could explain the difference. One of the factors that I thought of is that they are responsible for keeping production systems running and to apply changes to production systems. This has direct impact to the business and introduces a higher level of stress.

Another factor I considered was that they quite often needed to wait for the computer to perform their tasks. Remember the old days where you needed to swap floppy disks to install software? “Please insert disk 3 of 12 ....”. Waiting for the computer to finish its task gets already annoying when it exceeds 10 to 30 seconds and usually we want things to happen within 3 seconds. But waiting 5 to 10 minutes or sometimes even longer up to hours and having no idea how long it will take, is very nerve wrecking. You could see them tapping with their fingers or rolling their cigarettes while waiting.

On the other hand, I felt in the past that I, as a developer, had periods that I did not feel much pressure coming from management or ‘the hierarchy’. Even periods that there wasn’t too much project pressure either. Any stress that you could identify was more self induced in relation to career development or induced by peers. You had full control over the architecture and design. It allowed for much freedom in your work.

Those aspects for the Administrators and Developers above are more related to the specific profession and not as much with how the IT department is positioned within the organisation.

A more general concept comes to mind. Do middle mangers have more stress? They need to satisfy their bosses, their subordinates and their customers or peers. It is a concept that I heard from many colleagues, either jokingly or seriously, but there seems to be enough writing on the Internet about it to support the concept.

Middle managers can also be the cause of stress within the organisation due to the fact that too often they have grown into the senior role without being properly trained on all aspects of management.

With respect to project management, I definitely can find myself in this. For IT projects we usually need a project manager. The project extends into the business and most of us would say that there are no IT projects, only business projects. Hence the need to manage the project from business perspective. Usually the project management responsibility is then handed over to a departmental manger. Too often they have no project management skills and in many cases they will readily admit this. To resolve the project chaos and resulting stress, you can get a dedicated project manager in to help out provided that you have budgets for this.

If a dedicated business project manager is not an option, I tend to prefer to take the lead from the IT side and accepting the risk of increased pressure and stress caused by the lack of control you will have over the business side of the project. The only way to compensate is to create a good relationship and team atmosphere with the business and optimise communication.

Organistional maturity is probably another factor in work related stress.

Coming to a conclusion, I think that, depending on the maturity of the organisation, its IT governance maturity and the maturity of the IT operations, various staff in IT can experience a higher level of stress in comparison to what you would deduct from the ‘normal’ organisational hierarchy.