The Football Framework: Learning from the Gridiron

By: Rick Pollick

Originally posted on Medium.com on April 29, 2020

What can Football teach us about agile frameworks & high-performing teams?

 

— WRITTEN AS A SPEECH OUTLINE —

Pre-Game:

  • Do you know what the greatest professional football dynasties (1970s Steelers, 1990s San Francisco, and 2000s NE Patriots) all have in common? They were high-performing agile teams using the “football framework”.
  • Every week the world watches one of the most useful examples of how to cut through the “noise” of agile methodologies.
  • When you distill a project down; you find that is very similar to the game of football. — Objectives, measurements, milestones, hardships, changes, and goals. — One may also hear similar/interchangeable terminology…
  • Teams… especially agile teams, also look similar to a football team. — The planners, the leads, the playmakers, and those who work to make it come together.
  • Any team can be: “Mobile, agile, hostile!” like the famous T.C. Williams Titans Football Team — by thinking like a football player!

First Down: The most popular agile activity in the world: Football

{This segment will consist of a general background of football and a juxtaposition of the construct/players involved in both football & an agile team.}

The Basics:

  • Football game (similar to a project)
  • Football team possession (similar to a sprint)
  • Milestones & Measurements (downs)
  • Plans (plays)
  • Goals are scored

The Players:

  • The Front Office = The Organization
  • The Coaching Staff = The Product Team/Management
  • The people who define plans/plays and their expected outcome
  • The Quarterback = Team Lead(s)
  • The Running back = The hardworking colleagues who can “plow” through impediments
  • The Receivers = Skilled positional team members who help accelerate a project or goal
  • (On Defense) The linebackers, corner backs, safeties = The Quality Assurance team… ensuring that nothing negatively impacts the progress of the team
  • The Offensive/Defensive Line = The key support team members
  • This is a most interesting & typically underappreciated part of a team. These are the team members who understand the plan/play, know what the other positional players are going to do, and make it possible for the play to develop through “moving” impediments and protecting the team.

The Fundamentals:

  • While an exact 1:1 comparison cannot be made for each position on a football field, there are distinct similarities between the gridiron and an agile team.
  • We see that teams (both football & agile) are formed, primarily through “drafting” the players that they think can help them achieve their goals.
  • Plans (or plays) are drawn up, with a certain expectation of success
  • Those players work together, in unique ways, every time the ball is snapped to help them achieve those goals.
  • Teams typically have players with specialized skillsets, which allow them to build the trust of their teammates each time they execute a task.
  • Sometimes the unexpected happens… and plans/plays break-down. Teams need to know what their options are to mitigate risk or loss.

Second Down: How do teams identify what to do, when to do it & who should do it?

  • In football, during the course of a game, progress towards a goal is measured in a series of four “downs” at a time. If a team can move the football (without issue) 10 yards during those four downs, it gets a first down and continues to move toward a goal!
  • If a football team cannot make a first down, they must decide whether to punt the ball away, kick a field goal, or go all-in on the final down.
  • Similarly, to the downs in football, teams work (or sometimes “sprint”) toward milestones en route to a goal. At a basic level, the more goals a team achieves guarantees sustained project success. But sometimes things come up & plays break down.
  • Just as in football, it is important that teams know what to do in a given situation and when to consider the following:
  • What are the fallback plans is a play/plan breaks-down?
  • When is it appropriate to either get some of the “points”, or meet some of the goal (like a field goal), or punt to gain a new perspective?
  • In what scenarios should a team go all-in and “gamble” on getting something to the next milestone?

Third Down: Put it into practice!

  • Start thinking like a football team!
  • Huddle up before possessions or plays
  • Hold a daily scrum session & open lanes of communication
  • Football coaching staffs are notorious for their pep-talks, but between football games… they meticulously review film, analytics, metrics, and feedback to see where a team can improve. — This is exactly what a team should do! Some examples include:
  • Hold a retrospective after each “game” & review useful team metrics
  • The presentation will review an example of a useful retrospective activity (the football themed retro)
  • Make sure that discussions and retrospectives yield action items for the team to continue to improve.
  • Cultivate a team atmosphere. It is imperative that a team understands each of their roles, learns from each other & trusts each other. A team should understand that they are all working toward a common goal together.
  • Beyond routine execution of a play/plan, cross-team training & bonding is invaluable to creating this atmosphere.
  • Furthermore, team members will start to understand who can help or fill-in when difficulties arise.
  • Determine team options when a play/plan breaks-down — how will a team respond to adversity?
  • Design project plans, like plays, to have the ability to “check-down” or “hand-off” when needed — to ensure a team can get to that next first down
  • Hold effective planning sessions which design “plays” that utilize the strengths of your team.
  • For example: if a football team is better at passing the football that running it, they would design plays to emphasize that aspect of their game.
  • An agile team should design project plans and backlogs, which take into account how their team operates best.

Fourth Down: Tying the football mindset together

  • Of all of the thousands of books, literature, and discussions around agile frameworks, teams, and various approaches — it is useful to simply look toward the good ‘ol gridiron.
  • Adversity is part of the game, but it is how creatively a team can work together to both learn & overcome adversity and score.
  • Sometimes, a team must win by attrition, but the key is how you execute, plan, and grow as a team.
  • This thought process DOES NOT negate the use of a various agile methodologies (i.e. SAFe, XP, traditional Scrum, Kanban, etc.) — rather it is a team-oriented mindset which can be used to cut through “noise”.

Reiterated: When you distill a project down; you find that is very similar to the game of football. — Objectives, measurements, milestones, hardships, changes, and goals.

Reiterated: Teams… especially agile teams, also look similar to a football team. — The planners, the leads, the playmakers, and those who work to make it come together.

Touchdown:

  • All should remember the now famous line from Remember the Titans. Teams should be: “Mobile, agile, hostile!”
  • It is not important to do everything by-the-book, or to follow a specific agile method to the letter, but rather to understand the fundamentals. — After all, this is key when considering the rationale behind the Agile Manifesto.
  • There will always be rules as well as organizational policies to adhere to — but a team should align their thinking to reach their goals.
  • Football offers insight into a proven “framework” focusing on team coordination, trust, and effective execution.
  • To help a team strive to be the G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All Time) they should start to think like a football player & use the “Football Framework”.

Originally posted on Medium.com on April 29, 2020