I was a pretty good football player as a kid (I'm originally from Ireland, so I'm talking about 'real' football, or soccer)--good enough to get a trial with a local professional team.
It was a bruising experience, literally and figuratively. I quickly discovered that being 'good' when kicking a ball around with your mates had little relevance to performing at a professional level. These guys played with a degree of speed and skill that left me in their wake (again, in every sense of the word).
Mercifully the humiliation was short. I was pulled off the field after only 15 minutes, replaced with some other fresh-faced hopeful, and I slumped into my dad's car, deflated and silent the entire way home, my dreams of a career as a professional soccer player utterly shattered.
I rekindle this (clearly as yet unresolved) psychic trauma not solely for purposes of self-flagellation, but because I've witnessed business leaders fail to bridge that gulf--the one between being a 'good amateur' and being a successful professional--many times since.
To be specific, many business leaders fail in particular to develop the one skill that is most required as their business grows: the ability to manage complexity.
To explain what I mean (and to continue the soccer analogy), think of these three stages in managing complexity:
1. Flockball. Ever watched a group of six-year-olds play soccer? The only strategy is for everyone to run wherever the ball is, creating a rolling scrum of limbs and squeals, with a dust cloud hovering above and behind the frenzied mass of shouting kids.
Flockball is great fun to watch, and it has the side effect of quickly tiring out the little darlings, but it's not exactly pretty, and it certainly isn't effective--at least, not from the perspective of scoring goals, which is of course the point of the game.
When a business first hits the issue of complexity (specifically, when it reaches the point of growth that I call Whitewater), the response of many business leaders is to indulge in organizational flockball: everyone runs after every issue, generating a lot of heat but little light.
Ever wondered why your team seems to disappear down rabbit holes every time it gets together? Chances are you're playing flockball, not soccer.
2. Foosball. In an attempt to break the disruption of flockball, it's common for business leaders to impose role-based structure on their team: Give everyone a clear role, the theory goes, and we'll stop running around in a disorganized heap.
Good in theory (and necessary in practice), the difficulty with role specificity emerges over time, as those very roles harden into silos--predetermined ways of thinking, overly-defined areas of responsibility, and regimented patterns of information flow that result in silos with non-porous borders.
At this point, the organization looks and operates like a foosball table--everything beautifully aligned and regimented, but with limited ability to move the ball around in a flowing, dynamic manner--everything is just a little two-dimensional, a little too mechanical.
If your team is robust, aligned and hard-working, but never seems to really come up with those breakthrough ideas necessary to keep the organization vibrant and innovative, chances are you're playing foosball, not soccer.
3. Professional soccer. There's an adage in professional soccer--'let the ball do the work'. Instead of flocking after the ball, professional players stay in their allotted positions, pushing the ball around the field, probing their opponents' weaknesses.
But the truly world-class teams use that precision to build the opportunity for their greatest players to overlay brilliance and innovation.
So--take a look. Are you and your team playing flockball by chasing after every rabbit? Or Foosball, by sticking rigidly to predetermined roles? Or are you playing real, professional soccer, seamlessly combining structure and discipline with creativity and innovation? The difference will decide your future success.
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