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What Can We Learn from a Football Team about Self-Organisation?

February 15, 2020

"He puts everything in place to get the ball up to the final third of the pitch and then trusts his team to finish the job in the only area of the field that can’t be planned for."

This is how Thierry Henry, the legendary French striker, describes the football mentality of his former coach in F.C. Barcelona, Pep Guardiola.

F.C. Barcelona will probably be best remembered for the period they dominated the competition in the late 2000s and early 2010s. There might be those who could argue that their astonishing success during this period was the result of having elite players, a unique culture that originates from La Masia and top-notch coaching capabilities at their disposal.

When we go back to those days and try to understand the dynamics, there is one pattern we may want to dig deeper into: Self-organisation.

But how did it really work in their context?


Enablers of Self-Organisation

To begin with, as discussed in Mastering Professional Scrum, an insightful book by Stephanie Ockerman & Simon Reindl, it is true to say that "Effective Self Organisation" requires shared goals, clear accountabilities and boundaries.

And when a group of competent people have these things in place, they unlock the starter pack to deal with complex problems and achieve great things.

F.C. Barcelona got it right.

We know the team had a shared goal. This may be seen as simple: "Score more goal than you concede". However, there is more than meets the eye. They need to achieve this goal without compromising professionalism.

Marc Carmona, their former head of coach education makes it very clear:

"For us behaviour is very important. You have to win by respecting the opponent, the referee and the rules of the play."

Clear accountabilities... This is an interesting one. Let's see what Thierry Henry said about it:

“Stay in your position, trust your team-mate on the ball, and wait for the ball. Freedom, in the last third, run, you’re allowed to. You start in a high position, and wide, but after that, you can do whatever you want."

This is quite similar to some patterns that are displayed in Stacey Matrix & Ashby's Law (Law of Requisite Variety)

  • Particularly, when "what" and "how" relatively are closer to certainty and agreement in the first two zones of the field, holding your "position" and following "well-defined processes" are preferred as "go to" moves to get the job done. The coach had a clear plan for this part and set the expectations clearly for his team. He wanted them to follow his plan.
  • However, when they reach to the final third of the pitch, where the environment variety (number of potential series of event that can influence their scoring chances) becomes way more greater than the control system variety (number of available pre-defined ways to score), things get interesting. Now the team members are free to improvise and be more creative. They need to inspect and adapt the decision patterns continuously.

Actually, their success was predicated on using heuristics and emergent practices when there were more unknowns than knowns.

And boundaries. Time-boxing is one of those. You lost the ball? You have five seconds to retrieve it. No luck? Then you have to respond and stop the opponent, and sometimes it may lead to a tactical foul. So the team can fall back to their position and manage the risk exposure.


Build around right people. Support and trust them.

"Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done." - Twelve Principles of Agile Software

Although having shared goals, boundaries and clear accountabilities enable self-organisation; technical excellence and having all required skills to get the job done still stand out as pre-requisites for success, and they knew it.

You may have all the good intentions, clear targets, supportive managers, culture-fit people, proven tactics for winning games, but to succeed at a competitive level, you will still need good players, I mean, very very good ones who ideally can constitute a cross-functional team together.

"The total football approach requires the players to move in a fluid formation, where players can interchange positions quickly. In the youth academy, there is a large focus on technical ability, which is seen as a pre-requisite for inter-changes."


Core human values

"Psycho-social characteristics required to make it at Barça: humility, effort, ambition, respect, teamwork.

Nevertheless, it's fair to emphasise that everything's bonded with a set of core human values that build trust.

They need to respect team members' roles & capabilities, they need to collectively focus on a shared goal, they need to show courage and be open to try new things, they need to commit to these behaviours and getting better every day.


How to make the most of Self-Organisation?

I strongly believe that F.C. Barcelona is an interesting case and if you are interested in exploring further, many more intriguing patterns can be found about their operation model.

Keeping that in mind, let me now go back to a more familiar context and share a few things that stem from my personal experience.

Regardless of the framework used or the tools chosen, most of the teams & companies that reap the fruits of self-organisation have a few things in common. Even though this is not written in stone, the enablers have been more obvious for me every day:

  • They have a clear vision.
  • They do not budget against fixed annual plans or they have the stakeholder buy-in to continuously plan & adapt the forecast.
  • They build everything around the right people. Majority of these people are technically competent, brave, curious, professional, comfortable to do right thing even no-one is looking.
  • They give these people a space to make survivable experiments and validate their hypothesises.

When these are present, you move out of their way and just make sure the environment is suitable to keep aforementioned behaviours and patterns alive. Then they self-organise. Organically. 

So, you cannot take a group of people and tell them "Hey, you are a team. Self-organise!"

We know, "self-organisation" still can be a counter-intuitive concept for the people who have only worked in the fields that are driven by traditional project management practices.

And if the product, nature of the work and the environment are simple enough to create same outputs every time when a very well defined process followed, they might be right. If this is the case, using best practices and a process focused approach may result in better efficiency and predictability.

However, if the organisation can deliver more value through "a new way of working" that would allow more self-organisation, first, people need to unlearn the old way.

As a change agent, offer your help and be ready to face the third observation of Larman's Law of Organisational Behaviour:

"Any change initiative will be derided as 'purist', 'theoretical', 'revolutionary', 'religion', and 'needing pragmatic customization for local concerns' — which deflects from addressing weaknesses and manager/specialist status quo."

Perhaps, it's easy to say and difficult to achieve.

And it's certainly worth trying.



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