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. 

By Nick Malik

Former CIO and present Strategic Architect, Nick Malik is a Seattle based business and technology advisor with over 30 years of professional experience in management, systems, and technology. He is the co-author of the influential paper "Perspectives on Enterprise Architecture" with Dr. Brian Cameron that effectively defined modern Enterprise Architecture practices, and he is frequent speaker at public gatherings on Enterprise Architecture and related topics. He coauthored a book on Visual Storytelling with Martin Sykes and Mark West titled "Stories That Move Mountains".

6 thoughts on “Business Strategy and Kindergarten Soccer”
  1. In many companies, it's worse than that. Everybody brings their own ball and their own goal, and then complain that only their ball and their goal are the ones we should be playing with.  In some places, having a big herd of people all heading the same direction, even if there's only one doing all the work and scoring the goal might be an improvement!

  2. Thanks for the post Nick. Great analogy and one all of us are familiar with.  Politics is part of all companies and capturing that in an EA artefact might help demonstrate to the "players" that they are working at cross purposes.  Definitely tricky territory if the EA practice backs the "wrong" player … Leo

  3. Do you mind if I use your analogy? As my older one is enetring kindergarden, it's a hilarious hit! 🙂

  4. Excellent analogy and this can create a New Game Theory Problem for the enthusiasts who are tired of the Prisoner's dilemma, the Toss the dice, tic-tac-toe etc.. but of course this may get to rule breaking conventions of a mix of Rational & irrational players playing to WIN – 🙂

  5. Changing the location and size of the goal, arbitrary rules regarding offsides, penalty kicks, etc, — this analogy has legs!

  6. Nice information. Several divisions for youth, men, women, and coed provide all players–from beginners to highly skilled–the right environment for recreational yet competitive soccer.  League play is continuous year round.  All league participants are required to become members of Dribbling Indoor Soccer. Add referees and the players have to start to mature!  The parents 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. Thanks for sharing..

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