What the World Cup and Agile Development Have in Common


There are a surprising number of similarities between successful World Cup and agile teams. Both must be diligent in four areas in order to reach their “goals.” This article explores the parallels between the two for selecting the team, getting up to speed, consistency, and game plans.

There are few sports where the team is more important than in soccer. Unlike other team sports such as basketball, baseball, or even hockey, soccer relies on all eleven players to work in unison to achieve their ultimate goal.

Watching the World Cup the past few weeks has shown us the importance of team structure, training, work ethic, and strategy. Some countries that relied too heavily on one player who didn’t perform (Portugal) or that didn’t properly evaluate how their players would work together (Cameroon) are out. Other countries, like Germany and Costa Rica, made long runs in the tournament because they assembled players who quickly jelled into a cohesive unit that is greater than the sum of its parts.

You can learn a surprising amount about how to assemble and maintain a great agile team from the World Cup.

Selecting Players

Much was made of the United States leaving longtime soccer hero Landon Donovan off the World Cup roster. Questions remain regarding whether he fully bought into coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s system or whether he would have been able to consistently contribute as much as other team members.

When assembling a team, you need everyone to be on the same page. If a developer isn’t in tune with stakeholders’ expectations or doesn’t fully grasp the business implications of his work, he can drag down the performance of the entire team.

Select team members not for their past work, but for their ability to handle the task at hand. This might mean bringing in developers who are new but have desirable skills or experience in similar business scenarios.

You also need developers to jell culturally, both with the team and the business. You want a team that’s more like Columbia, dancing together in celebration of goals, than Ghana, where players attacked coaches and were dismissed from the tournament.

It’s hard to gain the stakeholders’ trust if you can’t relate on a cultural and business level. Working closely with business and IT stakeholders, preferably on site, improves communication and collaboration. Working in close proximity fosters an understanding and connection outside of just coding. This drives the relationship between the team and the business and creates opportunities to deliver added value.

Getting Up to Speed

While some team members have played with or against each other before, the final roster selection comes only weeks before the start of the World Cup. There’s not much time to become acquainted with one another and form a cohesive, productive unit. But the team must quickly find its rhythm or it will fail after just three games.

An agile team must also be able to quickly find its rhythm. When the team reaches peak velocity, it has achieved a flow that makes the amount of work it can accomplish predictable and drives high confidence levels. Teams strive to reach their rhythm quickly because there are deadlines to meet and any delay means potential loss of revenue, customer loyalty, or even people’s jobs. Early sprints should see team velocity improve, and peak velocity should be achieved ideally in three sprints.

While this ramp up to peak velocity may seem aggressive, it is achievable if the right team is assembled. Typically, team assembly is based on the technical capabilities of individuals. At my company, we take a different approach to team assembly that has repeatedly let us ramp up to peak velocity typically within three two-week sprints.

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