No matter if you look at teams in (American) football or soccer, being able to play a solid zonal defense is key to success. Dividing the field into zones that are covered by one or more defenders has proven to be a lot more efficient than defending one on one, as it offers better fallback positions in case one player is beaten by his opponent and because it allows to cover a larger area of the filed, making it tougher for the offensive team to develop a good plan against it.
Tactically, the only promising option to play against a team that defends using a zonal defense is to try to attack on the juncture of different zones.
In football, the West Coast Offense philosophy has been completely built around that idea. Short, quick passes at the intersection between lines of defenders are extremely tough to defend for a zonal defense. That’s both horizontally and vertically: Horizontally when receivers e.g. take a slant route that brings them right between corner backs and line backers, vertically e.g. with passes into the area between line backers and safeties.
In soccer, it’s quite comparable: Horizontally when teams try to play passes into the zone right between the two center backs or vertically when teams try to e.g. get behind the line of defender, down to the baseline, to be able to play a pass into the back of the defense.
This may not be an obvious comparison, but I believe most of today’s companies are also playing a zonal defense. Just look at the term of “line organization” – that one could be borrowed straight from the football or soccer tactics book. People are assigned to certain areas in which they operate and build an expertise that fits with this particular area.
One could even go as far as to compare the two classical forms of intra-company coordination to different styles of defense: Hierarchical organization, in which there is a clear definition of different lines from top to bottom could be compared to zonal defense, in which teams are organized in lines from front to back. Coordination by means of market, e.g. a negotiation between single players in the organization, could be compare to one-on-one (sic!) defense.
However, before completely drifting towards transaction cost theory and the likes of Ronald Coase and Oliver Williamson, let’s get back to our zonal defense theory, using our analogies:
In both sports and in companies, the most vulnerable point is at the juncture of different lines of the organization. One line does what the other does not understand or is not expecting. One line sees things that the other doesn’t see.
Great sports teams have figured out how to deal with this and how to avoid being vulnerable:
First: Communicate, communicate, communicate. In great soccer teams, center backs always talk to defensive midfielders. In great football teams, the safeties always tell the line backers what holes they see from the back.
Second: Even though it is important to basically keep the structure up, whenever one line falls, it is important that others jump in and help out.
There’s a lot that we all in non-sports organizations can learn from this. The importance of communication, especially from one line to the other, i.e. from one level in the hierarchy to another, can’t be overestimated. A lot of the inefficiencies we all see day by day exist because people did not have enough information and haven’t been informed about what was really going on.
Also, even though companies are organized in knowledge silos, trying to concentrate the expertise, whenever someone else needs support, “I’m not responsible for this” is probably not the best answer. When managers help their subordinates (and vice versa), when experts from one side help experts from another side, this organization will be a lot harder to destabilize.