Business Strategy and Kindergarten Soccer

Back when my kids were small, they all played soccer on local youth teams. 

It is interesting to watch very young kids play soccer, because the instructions are so simple: kick the ball into the goal.  With instructions like that, what do you get?  Bumblebees, of course.  While many of the kids will wander around the field, or stand in one spot wondering when something will happen, about half of each team will be in constant motion, within about ten feet of the ball.   They hover and dive and kick wildly, with the ball hopping in one direction and then another.  From the sidelines, all you can see is a cluster of little bodies moving around, and you see the ball kicked first this way, and then that.  It’s like watching a cluster of bees gradually move up and down the soccer field.

The behavior of the players is simple.  Everyone wants to score.  No one wants to pass.  No one plays a position because that is too difficult to explain to a five year old.  Rules like “offsides” are simply ignored.  The kids get dirty and get their exercise.  That’s all the parents really want.  Most everyone is happy. 

So, why bring this up?  Because the same thing happens in some companies.  There are companies that have honed a senior layer of internally competitive business managers.  Each has tremendous ambition to rise to the next level, where prestige is accompanied by a serious bump in pay.  This happens in some law firms, ad agencies, and even some large businesses. 

Take a company with a highly competitive upper middle management layer, and toss in a business strategy.  It’s like tossing a soccer ball into a group of kindergartners.  Everyone goes for the ball.  No one steps back to take the pass, because no one trusts anyone, and no one is going to be held to their position.  There are no real referees.  Add referees and the players have to start to mature!  The parents (investors) can put in referees, but if they don’t, the game looks like Kindergarten Soccer.  Lots of energy.  Everyone gets dirty.  A few times, someone scores a goal.

It is very difficult to be an Enterprise Architect in a culture like that.  No competitive child wants to listen to someone on the sidelines shouting out instructions.  Most commonly, an Enterprise Architect can be an advisor, providing pointers to one of the players so that he or she can beat the other players.  At best, you can be a coach, but only if the team recognizes that they are a team.  Even then there is no “practice time”… only “game time.”  No easy way to get these players to practice new skills, develop trust, and take the the field as a team.

Now, you could say that a business strategy should be so detailed, and so well described, that it identifies roles that each person should play.  But in Kindergarten Soccer, it won’t work.  The kids can’t follow complex plans without their childlike enthusiasm for “kicking the ball” simply taking over. 

In some businesses, Business Strategy is Kindergarten Soccer.  The only difference: if you are advising a losing player, you can be disposed of fairly quickly.  When your kid is out of the game, you go too.  Politics trumps Performance every time.