A chilly day in Madrid, Spain, November 2005. I was lucky I scored a ticket to one of the biggest matches in soccer: Real Madrid vs. FC Barcelona. Two of the best teams in the world meeting in this classic at the Santiago Bernabeu in the heart of the Spanish capital.
15 minutes into the game, on midfield line level, a young player with jersey #30 receives the ball and fires the afterburner. He cuts through the opponents territory like a hot knife through butter. 20 meter in front of the goal he leaves the ball for his team mate Samuel Eto’o, who easily converts. 1-0 Barcelona.
Lionel Messi, the young player with #30, was 18 years old that day. Today, he is for many the best soccer player in the world. Back in November 2005, that used to be his then team mate Ronaldinho. He scored the 2-0 and 3-0 in that match, and both goal were stunning: Both time, he took the ball a long way from the Madrid goal and ran past the defenders in a way that made them look like poor beginners.
Messia and Ronaldinho put on a show that night. For a soccer fan it was a magical moment. A gift. To illustrate the exceptionality of the moment: After the match which their team lost 3-0, Madrid fans gave standing ovations to the players of their arch-rivals.
One clear parallel between business and sports is that both use strategy and tactics to be successful. And just like in management, there is some kind of evolution when it comes to sports tactics.
When you listen to soccer stars from 20 or 30 years ago, most of them express that they would not have enjoyed playing today, as there is simply too much tactical discipline and thus not enough room to move. With the further development of the so called zone defense, which resulted in having players organized in lines, the distance between these lines became important for the power of the formation.
Basically, teams try to organize themselves in flat formations that reduce the room for the opponent’s offense to move, limiting offensive options and forcing turnovers (sorry if I am diving too deep into soccer tactics here).
Some call this systemic soccer. When two very systemic teams play each other, matches can be quite boring to watch, even if some of the best teams are on the pitch. The better both teams play their system, the more they neutralize each other.
We have the same situation in business today: Companies neutralize each other because they all follow the “right” approaches. Strategies are more transparent then ever due to fast and open communication, consultants dealing with all players in an industry and standard management concepts aiming at prohibiting mistakes like Total Quality Management, Six Sigma, etc. (I am sure you could add a couple of these buzz words easily).
Systemic Soccer is a full dedication to operational excellence. The issue with operational excellence – both in soccer and in business – is that the better you become the harder it is to further improve. That gives others the chance to catch up.
But: Business is about achieving a competitive edge, and on the long run it is very hard to win or sustain a competitive edge by only pursuing operational excellence.
So what’s the tie breaker? How can you still get an edge under these circumstances?
Back in November 2005, Barcelona had a clear edge. And even though both Madrid and Barcelona were well trained in systematic play, that was not where the edge came from.
With Messi and Ronaldinho, Barcelona had two players that did not what the “system” expected them to do. They did not pass the ball on to the next player quickly to avoid risk. They did not focus on defending. They did what others could not expect. They created art. They created joy. Maybe not throughout the whole 90 minutes, but they “rocked for five minutes” (to use the words from Seth Godin’s Blog), and those five minutes of genius and inspiration were sufficient to easily win the match.
I was reminded on this match in Madrid when I read Seth Godin’s new Book “Linchpin“. Seth Godin is great, and the book is great, too (don’t wait for Christmas, get it now!). In the book, Seth describes a class of people he calls the “Linchpins”. Linchpins are indispensable in an organization, as they “can invent, connect, create and make things happen”.
Messi and Ronaldinho did exactly this: They invented ways to outplay a defense, connected the team, created the opportunity and made it happen.
In his book, Seth builds extensively on the emotional, empathic nature of linchpins as the connectors of others in an organization. The concept is very dense and valuable and can not be easily described by just one comparison with two soccer players in one match, so if you are interested in more detail I recommend reading the book.
However I still feel that idea also needs some more discussion here: The connectors and artists in soccer are usually the play makers, also called #10’s or central offensive midfielders. It is no coincidence that some of the greatest stars and some of the most interesting characters in soccer history were #10’s (that doesn’t mean they also had #10 on their jersey, though a lot of them did).
Therefore I decided to offer you a very special warm up to the Soccer World Cup to be played in June and July of this year:
Every month until the World Cup, starting with my next post this Thursday (I usually post on Mondays and Thursdays), I will try to explore one of the greatest play makers in soccer history and what we can learn from him for our business environment . This will be on the second Thursday of each month, so the last post in this series will be on the day before the tournament starts.
I have no idea where this will lead to (no, I did not already write the posts in advance), so this seems like a fun challenge. Please be invited to join in and comment.