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Soccer Lessons for Project Managers

Soccer Lessons for Project Managers

Let me teach you how to play soccer. To make the lesson more interesting, let us aim for an interesting goal. So, how do you win the Euro 2012? Or, to look ahead instead of back, how do you become soccer world champion? The answer is really easy: win every game (slightly different rules apply in the first phase of the tournament, but let us simplify things a bit). How do you win a game? The answer is really easy: you score more goals than the opponent. It does not even matter how many goals the opponent scores, you just have to have more.

OK, last dumb rhetorical question for today: How do you score a goal? You guessed it, the answer is really easy: the ball has to end up in the opponent's goal (to make the game more interesting, they switch goals halfway through the game). Now let the game begin. Walk comfortably towards the opponent's goal, and score. As you may have guessed, now is the time when the trouble starts.

The opponent is acting out a clever plan to win the game: First and foremost, this implies putting obstacles in your way. No problem, you say, we will just run towards the goal as quickly as we can, save time, and make it impossible for the opponent to stand in our way.

But the opponent has not given up yet. They also start running, which basically puts you back to square one, but now on a higher energy level, with increasing stress level. Soon you realize that once the opponent is in possession of the ball, the likelihood of scoring a goal yourself suddenly diminishes. Your clever plan of scoring more goals starts to go fall apart, because you suddenly find yourself running after the ball that is quickly moving into the direction of your own goal. (Trust me, waiting for half-time and the switching of the goals does not help in this situation, I have tried it).

What can we learn from this? Did I lie to you in claiming that it is easy to win a soccer game? No. I may not have told you the full story right away, but as a consultant, don't I need to make sure that you hire me again? I have laid out a perfect plan to win, but since we now have realized that I forgot to tell you how to execute the plan, things did not work out as expected. It seems that the how is at least as important as the what.

No worries. You have lost just one game. And remember, the rules in the first phase of the competition are a little different, so we can afford to lose a game. We can still make it. Time to fix the problem. I have worked out the perfect plan. I am sure you will get to kick off the next game (hey, there is a 50% chance that my assumption will hold true, don't bother me with your personal doubts). Instead of trying to score right away, we will keep the ball and run around waiting until the opponent is tired, then outrun them and score. One goal is more than zero, so you will win the game for sure.

A few days later. Having lost the second game, we are currently having a meeting to analyze what went wrong. We did get to kick off, didn't I tell you to stop worrying? The problem was that after two minutes into executing our clever and carefully laid out plan to keep the ball, the referee suddenly stepped into the way of one player (it was not even the one with the ball!), forcing him to take a detour, which in due course let us lose the ball.

From then on, everything went downhill, since the players on the field never reached positions even close to the movements we had planned for. Thus, our whole plan became impossible to execute when we were just two minutes into the game. I think that we might have to face the fact that in future games, similar things will happen. Thus, it does not seem to be a clever idea to try and plan ahead a full game of soccer.

Instead, we could try to figure out some clever moves to execute in certain situations. They may or may not work, but it seems that we can plan ahead for, say, one minute into the game, and predict what is going to happen with a certain level of confidence. So we have learned an important lesson: you cannot really plan ahead a soccer game. Let us try to plan for some situations that are likely to occur. We don't exactly know when and if they will, but when they do, we will be prepared.

Now I hear someone say:

I knew it before. I have seen many soccer games on TV, and it was crystal clear that your strategy would not work out.

Well, my strategy was based on certain assumptions, like the opponent not taking part in the game. Looking back, I now realize how stupid it was to make this assumption, but at the time it really seemed to be appropriate. Thinking about this a bit more, we come to realize that it is very easy to watch a recorded game, pause the playback at a given point in time, and educate all others on the fact that a certain player has just ran across the field for nothing, wasting his energy, and even worse, deteriorating the lawn condition in doing so. He could have been so much more efficient by saving this run.

Being part of the game, all you can do is to try and run somewhere, hope for the ball, and try to score. If it works out, you are a hero. If not, everybody knew right up front that you were likely to fail. But wasting time and energy, as well as wasting chances, is an integral part of the game. But without this waste, you would miss out the opportunity to learn and gain experience by analyzing the past and learning from it.

You cannot plan ahead, at least not if moving targets and obstacles are involved. So don't even try to plan the future. Instead, work your way in little steps, and, ahead of time, try to figure out some small action plans for the situations that are likely to occur. We can't tell if these action plans, we might call them patterns for a lack of a better term, will work out, or even be applicable. But we can try to be prepared.

One thing is for sure. A soccer game always lasts 90 minutes (with a switch of sides halfway through, just to make the game more interesting). Right?