What could the Dutch football learn from agile?

After a series of very disappointing games the Dutch national football team was eliminated during the preliminary rounds of the European Championships. Comments weren’t mild. The most heard comments largely focused on the lack of team spirit and mental fitness. Not uncommon to Dutch national football teams.

Earlier this week an interesting broadcast of the Dutch sports program Studio Sport included a discussion between some football players and the successful Dutch field hockey coach Mark Lammers. The latter stated that teams perform much better if the players share responsibilities. The Dutch football players at the table responded to this statement that this might work well in a modern game such as field hockey, as one the players said that he even saw it working in his daughters field hockey team, but that football is by nature a very conservative game, with lots of high profile media attention and that in this game the players should just execute the coaches orders.

I couldn’t help but watching this from an agile view. Clearly Mark Lammers would do well managing an agile software development project. Even though responsible for the team as a whole, he insist on giving the players the liberty to collaborate. Pretty similar to how agile project managers guide their project teams. Funny enough the Dutch football players ridiculed his ideas, and repeated that the players should just follow orders. That the game would become total chaos otherwise. Having seen the Dutch team playing, chaos was a actually a word that came to mind. And following up the coaches orders wasn’t part of it.

It’s actually the very same mockery agile has received from traditional managers over the years. Yes this agile stuff might work in small projects (such as the one football players daughters hockey game) or in fancy mobile projects (field hockey is a modern game), it doesn’t work in large, complex, high profile projects. Software development is a highly conservative game. It should not be bothered by this letting-the-players-share-the-responsibilities-in-the-team mumbo jumbo. Football players just execute their individual tasks. Just as analysts, developers and testers do in important software development projects.

Lammers had a good argument. Wouldn’t they agree that if players had influence and saying in what would be the best task, or how to execute it in the best way, they would simply run harder and even collaborate better as a team? The football players looked at him like they saw water burning. Lammers just couldn’t get through to them. Similar to the many discussions I’ve had about agile with traditional managers. It is the team that does the job. Not the individual players.

Doesn’t it just amaze you who unhappy highly appreciated players like Robin van Persie, Klaas Jan Huntelaar, or Wesley Sneijder with their respective tasks, and hence didn’t make it as a team? Wouldn’t that be similar to having Erich Gamma, James Gosling, Scott Guthrie and Anders Hejlsberg as the team of programmers in a project, and than have the project managers handing them out individual tasks, and denying them any influence in the project?

Much to my demise, one of my current projects is actually a waterfall project. Although I am one of the most seasoned guys (resources to the project manager) on the team, and have the role of software architect, the project manager insists on defining individual tasks that I should perform. There’s a whole list. I even book hours on individual posts per task. The horror.

So even though I’m in the role of overlooking the technology in the project, I’m actually constructing individual parts of the framework and the application. Solo. Now to me that is not a very motivating situation. Collaboration isn’t stimulated. So there’s little between the members in the team. In my opinion the project is running in a highly sub-optimal mode, where everybody delivers individual tasks, and then throwing the result over the wall to the next person. The project could be executed much more efficiently if we could operate as a team. With shared responsibilities. Not as a disjoint set of qualified individuals.

Back to the Dutch national football team during these European Championships. Wouldn’t you agree that this is actually a very good description of the whole thing? A bunch of highly qualified individuals all executing individual tasks that didn’t like to do? Wesley Sneijder clearly didn’t like his role as a left winger. And neither did Arjen Robben like his role. Hence they executed them without flair, without efficiency, and most of all without operating as a team. They were executing individual tasks, and throwing the result over the wall to the next person.

And still, at the end of the television debate, the field hockey coach was unable to convince the conservative football players. They clearly totally missed what he was talking about. Even when the question was posed whether the players are subordinate to the coaches tactics and plan, of whether it might be better to form a team that best fits the players qualities, they chose to stick to the plan. To put it in the words of the agile manifesto: they valued following a plan over individuals and interactions.

If only the next Dutch football team would learn from agile. And if only traditional project managers would learn from their kids field hockey teams, the Dutch team might be the next world champion. And our projects might actually succeed.

4 thoughts on “What could the Dutch football learn from agile?

  1. Hi Sander,

    I saw and thought exactly THE same. Even THE analytics didn’t see themselves being oblivious. SO THE real question is (besides my Apple device screwing Up my upper and power cases) is: What question should be asked to let non-teamplayers realize THE value of teamplay?

  2. A story right from my heart, both about project execution and coaching a sportsteam.

    Collaboration is a must and no, we can not always do only the nice jobs.

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