Posted by: kerrywills | June 27, 2014

Scoring Project Goals: A Soccer Metaphor


This is a re-post of an article that I did in 2009. Given the World Cup is going on, it seemed appropriate to post it again. Enjoy…..

Have you ever seen a group of children play soccer? The ball gets kicked into a corner and every child on the field runs after it. Then the ball gets kicked into another corner and they all chase it there as well. It is exhausting to watch and the game usually lasts a long time, with no/few goals being scored.

This metaphor can easily be extended to poorly run projects. All of the team members wind up ‘chasing the ball’ wherever it goes rather than spreading the field and playing as a team. Often the same result occurs as the children’s game; a long time goes by without many goals being made. This article will ponder the comparison between a well run project and a well run soccer team.

SOCCER MATCH

1. Watching Children Play

A lot can be learned about running projects from watching children play soccer. It seems that project teams are always ‘chasing down’ the most recent problem like chasing down a soccer ball. That is, they are always running to the next place that the ball is kicked. This problem usually involves the entire team or a large part of it to solve. This means that team members are not working on other aspects of the project, resulting in those areas having problems later. These new problems then require everyone working on them to solve. It seems to be a perpetual loop that is diagrammed below.

ProactiveFigure 1: Always Chasing The Ball

The result of this loop is that the team is always behind the ball chasing it wherever it gets kicked. This is usually accompanied by lots of yelling from the sidelines by the coach (Project Manager). The next sections will discuss approaches for scoring project goals.

2. Get In Front of the Ball

The best soccer players (and project team members) are those who have learned how to ‘run without the ball’. These players have the ability to anticipate where the ball will go and be there by the time it gets there. By not being behind the ball, they can focus on preparation for when the ball gets to them and they have a better idea of what to do with it when it gets there.

As this relates to projects, having a plan and being able to anticipate where the project will go is critical to the success of the project. If a project is always chasing down issues, then they are being controlled by the issues and wherever it takes them. Staying in front of the issues allows them to be manageable and allows for preparation as they arise.

The plan must be realistic, however. Having team members ready at a place in the field where the ball will not go makes them unproductive.  The plan must also be flexible enough to react to deviations in the track of the ball.

3. Teamwork

One of the biggest keys to getting in front of the ball is to trust in the other team members. This allows the players on the team to spread out themselves across the field and focus on their respective roles. The offensive players in the front need to trust that the players behind them will get them the ball and the goalie needs to trust that the defensive players will do their best to keep the ball away from the goal.

Productive teams also need to trust in each other’s abilities. Designers need to trust that the Requirements were captured properly. Developers need to trust that the Design was done properly. Having this trust allows the team members to focus on their aspect of the project and not have to question all of the other information.

Another key to teamwork is to know where the other team members are located across the field. This allows whoever has the ball to get it to the appropriate person when they are ready to receive it. This results in proper handoffs between team members.

4. Coaching

The coach is critical to the success of the team. Their job is to keep the team focused and motivated to make goals. They see the entire field and can provide valuable insight to the players who are focused on their part of the game. This is why the coach needs to be observant and engaged in what is going on during the game.

The coach needs to have the respect of the team members. Yelling from the sidelines is not a very effective technique for motivating team members. Eventually, they stop listening to the coach and do things however they want to do them.

Another effective technique of the coach is the half-time talk. This is when the coach motivates the team during the middle of the game. If the game is going well, they praise the team but remind them that the game is not over yet. If the game is not going well, they motivate the players and formulate a new plan. Project Managers shouldn’t wait until ‘half-time’ but should always be looking to motivate their team members.

5. Proper Training

Proper training also results in a higher probability of success. This is because the team members have practiced their skills and are not learning to pass the ball for the first time during a critical game.

CONCLUSION

Projects can be compared to soccer games in how they are run. Team members need to spread the field, run without the ball, trust in each other, practice their skills and have a good coach.

When all goes well, the team can make their goals. I will leave it up to you, the PM, to determine if they can pull their shirts over their heads and run around the field once this happens.

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