IT Management Blog: my thoughts about putting the "i" in IT

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”.