Open Spaces & Shiny Objects

Soccer is often referred to as the “beautiful game.”  I’m no expert, but even as a layman I can see why true fans feel this way.  Watching two teams of eleven skilled players competing to maneuver a single ball in an enclosed space can be riveting.  The best teams perform like a symphony where every player seamlessly synchronizes their respective roles in the moment, as the game unfolds, to control the ball.

The subtleties of the game can get lost in its simplicity.   Kick the ball in the net, soccer is as easy as that to explain.  This is why novice players focus on the ball.  Anyone who has attended a pee-wee soccer games knows what I mean.  Amoeba-like mobs of 5 year olds all joyfully chasing the ball around the field.  It’s an adorable yet at the same time a terrible representation of the sport.

The game is about managing space.  Even someone like me who tends to watch soccer only during the men’s and women’s World Cups can appreciate how elite players create space for themselves and their teammates to score.  Teams where everyone crowds the ball are easy to defend.  No one wants to watch the game played that way, unless your kid happens to be on the field.

Where am I going with this?  I think “managing space” is a great way to think about the teams we play on in our professional careers.  Any business with an organization chart understands how important it is to define the space within which each employee should operate.  Team productivity and effectiveness depend upon it.

Yet how many times have we seen businesses forget this rule when the “shiny object” is introduced?  By shiny object I mean the new account, project, line of business, any initiative that suddenly captivates the attention of top management.  Once a shiny new object is rolled onto the field of play in a business, too often even the best teams can operate like a bunch of pee-wee soccer players where everyone is rushing to take a swipe at the ball.  The whole concept of managing space goes out the window.

Failure to manage space hurts everyone.  Star performers can’t deliver their normally superlative results if crowded by teammates.  How effective would Lionel Messi be if he was crowded by teammates all the time?  In fact the same is true for anyone on the team.  Constrict the space of anyone on the team and you eliminate almost all potential for extraordinary performance.

The beauty of soccer is the imaginative ways teams find to manage space.  I know enough about the game to see the difference in how iconic World Cup teams work together.  The iconic US Women’s teams or Brazilian men’s teams both won multiple championships but played the game very differently.

In business there is much more opportunity to get creative in managing space and chasing shiny objects.  No soccer team can change the dimensions of the playing field.  Each day businesses have the opportunity to redefine their respective fields.  

These days that our fields of play in business are being redefined everywhere, whether we like it or not.  But if during that process we as leaders and employees forget the lessons of managing space and all run for the ball, we shouldn’t be surprised if we ultimately are disappointed with the results.

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