The Razor's Edge

I love football!

By football, I mean the game you play with your feet, of course, that many of us call soccer. I like the hands football, but I really love the feet football. By love, I mean I have invested myself in a long-term relationship that has been surpassed only by my relationship with my wife and my children in duration. Nine years a referee, four years a coach, six years a league administrator, and uncountable hours watching the ballet of 'the beautiful game'.

In the world of football, the World Cup is the ultimate international competition. Held every four years, it hosts the 32 top national teams from around the globe in an intense competition to take home the trophy and win the adulation of millions of your countrymen. Today, as I write, the 64 matches of the 2014 World Cup are well underway across Brazil and will last about four more weeks culminating in the finals on July 13.

ball bmwA few days ago the Spanish national team, winner of the 2010 World Cup, took a 5-1 trouncing at the feet of the Netherlands national team. The irony of being soundly trampled by the opponents that Spain beat 1-0 four years ago in the last World Cup final was not lost on either the Spanish or the Dutch, not to mention the rest of the world, but that is not my point.

The morning after, reeling from the upset, fans and commentators alike took to verbally hide-strapping Spain’s goalkeeper, Iker Cassillas, for not doing more to prevent those five balls in the net that sealed the Spanish team’s fate and embarrassed Spain in front of the world. 

But instead of collapsing under the lash of the furious public pillorying, Vincente del Bosque, the veteran manager of the Spanish team, stepped up to the microphone in a responsible display of organizational accountability and reprimanded the inquisitors during a post-defeat interview. 

"If a team loses it's not down to the performance of a single player," said Del Bosque when asked if he would drop Casillas for Wednesday's crucial game against Chile at Rio's Maracana stadium. "Defeats happen as a result of weaknesses in the entire squad, but least of all because of the performance of Iker Casillas." - FIFA.com

Listening to the wisdom of years of coaching and managing (thank you, Vincente), I found a learning opportunity on human error and teamwork in my quest to improve my own capacity as a leader and manager.

Point One: Effective leaders and managers recognize that ANY adverse event is a team failure, because at a very fundamental level, the purpose of the organization is to prevent those events from impacting desired results!

Not achieving organizational goals (and literal ones!) is the result of the alignment of vulnerabilities across the squad, and not because of the performance of a specific player, Del Bosque says. These are words worth remembering when we think about high reliability organizations where failure is not an option.

In football, the ball has to pass by ten other players in addition to the keeper in order to score. An unsuccessful defense is owned by eleven men on the pitch, not the one man in the goal box. While each team member is expected to do his very best, it is the team collectively that enjoys success or suffers defeat despite individual mistakes. A goal, not to mention a loss, is nothing less than an organizational failure.

Our experience, however, is typically that when we lose, or when failure occurs, we look for someone to blame. It is our nature to do so and precisely what the fans and commentators were doing to Spanish keeper Casillas. But blaming the individual provides neither answers nor solutions. (For more about this phenomenon, see “Playing The Blame Game…”)

In high reliability organizations, leaders and managers understand that mistakes will be made despite our best efforts. They understand that the organization itself, however well-meaning, can create the very conditions that make it impossible for task execution to be error and event-free. They understand that any failure is a team failure, and it is the responsibility of leaders and managers to align the organization such that individual mistakes or errors do not compromise successful accomplishment of the mission.

Point Two: Effective leaders and managers take personal responsibility to identify and eliminate the conditions in their organization that produce goal-impacting events.

As individuals, we are and always will be fallible as a necessary condition of being human. To blame the individual is a failure to recognize that the role of the organization is not to eliminate mistakes, an impossible (and undesirable) target, but to make sure that mistakes do not compromise the organization’s goals and objectives. 

Spain’s national team manager understands this, and in doing so gives his team the power to respond - they can change their approach, they can change their strategy, they can make their defense more robust, they can be creative and innovative on the pitch, and they are free to adapt to prevent another loss. If the keeper is erroneously assigned culpability for the loss, there is nothing that can be done but replace the keeper - no time to retrain or repair, and the the astute observer will recognize that replacing the keeper does nothing to address the real problem, that of vulnerabilities in team performance. Effective leaders and managers can see past blame, and take responsibility to re-align or repair the organization to enable success.

Point Three: Effective leaders and managers accept the organization’s culpability in adverse events specifically to produce the freedom and power to improve process and program robustness and prevent future events.

If we do not understand this, we do so at our peril. The consequence of our failure to understand produces an organization unprepared to weather the mistakes that people will inevitably make, an organization not robust enough to survive routine events, an organization that will fail to achieve organizational goals and objectives, and one that hazards the very safety of the people who make things happen. 

For the sake of those who trust us to make their workplace safe and event-free, this is our responsibility:  we must step up and take responsibility for our organization’s role in the processes and programs that provide the breeding ground for errors and mistakes. This is the effective leader and manager's sacred duty.

 

casillas

Image © 2014 Getty Images All Rights Reserved

As a footnote, to goal-keeper Iker Casillas I say, there is no dishonor in losing the game. There is only dishonor in not playing all out because you are afraid to lose. It is you and your team-mates playing at your best that truly creates o jogo bonita, the beautiful game!

 

 

Creative Commons License
Lessons from the World Cup - Teamwork and Human Error... by Brad Williamson
is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

 

 

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