What FIFA World Cup 2010 teaches us about Project Management?

The FIFA World Cup 2010 has garnered a significant mindshare in the recent weeks. It has thrown up an interesting set of results with favourites getting knocked out early in the tournament. At the time of writing, there are 4 teams remaining and I prefer to look at the results in a slightly different way. I believe that the tournament results have a lot of lessons that we should apply to Project / Product Management ( I will use the word “Project” or “Product” interchangeably for the rest of the article). I hope you like the list and I look forward to learning more observations from all of you. I am neither a football expert nor a project management expert and not everyone may agree with my views here, but I hope you look at the bigger picture. If some of my examples illustrating a point are not palatable, please bear with me.

I have listed down the points in no particular order of importance and each point demonstrates a particular area of Project Management:

  • Do not depend on a star performer in your team.We expect a lot from star performers. The same applies to current greats like Rooney, Kaka, Ronaldo, Messi (who performed below expectations) and most likely you have some star performers in your project team too. Do not expect them to bail you out everytime. You need to build backups who can take over from them on off days or simply when they are not there. In a football team, your star performer could be red carded and you will have to do without him. Similarly in a project, a person could be ill or simply put in his resignation; you need to be prepared for any eventuality.
  • A great technical person does not necessarily make a great or good manager (coach).

    Diego Maradona and a host of former great players are currently managers of their respective national teams. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that they were great players. They have demonstrated football skills that have delighted us, when they were at the peak of their playing prowess. However, it is important to note that they do not make good managers. Managing a team calls for a completely different set of skills. There is strategy, team analysis, people management, dealing with the press, etc. It is no wonder that there have been very few instances of a person repeating his triumph, both as a player and a manager. The only one who comes to mind is Franz Beckenbauer (player of the winning team in 1974 and manager of the winning team in 1990). The same scenario applies to project management. The best technical person should be left to do what he does best, solve and address the technical areas. Instead look out for a manager as someone who has more all round skills. If the technical person does demonstrate those skills, then by all means go with that otherwise you are running a great risk.

  • There is no substitute for planning.

    We have seen several teams that were doing real good and then all of a sudden they got caught by a team that seemed to have analysed them inside out. The result : A demoralizing and one sided defeat. What prevented the losing team from doing the kind of planning that the opponent did? We are not sure but it could be complacency or simply not considering some factors. When we relate this to Project Management, it is important to emphasize that good planning at every stage is required, no matter how well you might be doing at that stage. A key arsenal to planning better is to constantly measure what is going wrong (and right) and see how you can tweak some processes to improve the results. In short, planning should not be compromised and the results should be measured to be fed back into the next stage of planning. If planning for a Product, make sure you have looked at all areas, right down to your marketing channels.

  • To Err is Human.

    Mistakes happen all around us. We have seen some horrible mistakes performed by both players and referees that have completely changed the complexion of the game. This is not the first time it has happened and it will not be the last time. As the wise man says, “This is all part of football” and it does not get simpler than that. The same applies to Project Management. Mistakes will happen. People will make them. If possible try to address them to reduce the damage but be cognizant of the fact that some of them cannot be reversed. They might even get repeated. But do consider human error as part of the process.

  • Address the root cause of the problem and not the symptoms.

    England must be feeling cheated for not being allowed a second goal against Germany that would have tied the match at 2-2. Fair enough! So should we still blame the referees for that result (which would be treating the symptom) or should we blame the poor performance of the English team and understand the root cause. Anyone, who watched that game, could have seen how England failed at all levels to match the better team on that day. In other words, it is important to understand the root cause rather than blaming issues that are at best, peripheral ones. The same applies to Project Management and issues that you may face. Try to understand why a certain set of problems are happening. For e.g, the code is not well written. Sure, but there could be a whole lot of other real causes: insufficient use cases, incorrect requirements, lack of best practices usage by the developer, lack of unit testing, etc. So analyze deeper and treat the root cause, not the symptom.

  • Everyone needs to perform and know their role.

    A football team comprises of 11 players (though some might say 12/13/14 .. if the referees decisions go your way!). Still, except in rare occasions everyone needs to perform as a team. There might be a streak of individual genius that could get a goal but the team still has to defend the lead. Working in a team is no different, all individuals (Project Manager, Coders, Leads, Testers, etc) need to perform and the objectives should be clear to all. The forwards in a football team are fed by the midfielders, who in turn depend on the defenders and goalkeepers. Similarly, the project team too needs to have clearly defined roles and what they need to do in the overall scheme of things. A defender in a football team should be good at defending 99% of his time. Occasionally he can move forward to feed the forward line or even take corners or an odd header or two from a corner kick. The same applies to your project team. Even if you are a developer, do some more integration testing, learn the tools that the integrators use, etc. They will come in handy. No matter what your role is, be a team player first.

  • Past performance is no guarantee of future performance OR Overconfidence can be your biggest enemy.

    Before the World Cup started, if you asked people about whom they think would win the World Cup, a majority would end up saying Brazil. So what if they cannot even name the 11 players that make up the Brazilian team. Brazil has the best record among all teams but that does not count for anything. If anything else, it puts additional pressure and sometimes even a bit of overconfidence, if you start believing the noises around you, that you are the champions. The same applies to successful Project Teams. Every successful project undertaken by the team should remain just that – a successful project. When a new project starts, the slate is wiped clean and you must get down to business without a hangover that the past performance is going to get you through this time too. For all you care, your past triumphs could have seen some lucky breakthroughs, which could be absent this time around. So always be on your guard and a little bit of paranoia helps too.

  • Ring Out the Old , Ring in the New

    There is a time and place for everything and everyone. Some teams relied on old timers simply based on their experience. Experience is a valuable asset but only if it is applied to the current generation and trends. Old methods always give way to new and more efficient tactics/methods. Change is a constant and investing in the youth is another risk which can pay really well. Germany has one of the youngest sides and when moulded by experienced managers/support staff, is performing well. The same cannot be said of teams that packed themselves with old timers, who were just out of sorts when confronted with the new methods and strategies. In Project Management too, time trusted methods need to be looked at to determine if they best suit the current trends. Agile methods are much more prevalent now, since they allow teams to be more dynamic and responsive. Apply this at all levels i.e. processes, people, tools, languages and frameworks. Look out for newer ways of doing things but do your homework first. New technologies come with significant risks but those who can harness them and mould them to suit their project can reap the benefits for years to come.

  • You need to have luck on your side sometimes.

    Football is a game after all. You need luck too to get a break in the game. It could be a mistake on the opponent’s part that gets you a goal. In most cases, the luck favors the team that has been working hardest in the field or has done a lot of work in preparing for the game. It is almost a sort of poetic justice, when it happens. While doing a project too, concentrate on the tasks and work harder, especially when you are facing a problem. Luck is usually defined as “When opportunity meets preparation” and this could not be more true. So keep working and lady luck will pay you a visit.

  • Early setbacks can be a blessing in disguise.

    Germany has done well in this World Cup. Spain has also resurrected itself after a stunning loss to Switzerland. Germany too lost to Serbia in their group. Both these teams received an early jolt that made them fight for survival. And they have taken those jolts and come out strongly, much more mentally prepared than the others. The same applies to a Project. It is good to know about problems early enough in the project development cycle rather than when you ship the product and the customer reports about it. Even architectural issues, if found out in the beginning of the cycle should be addressed early enough to set the pace for the rest of the project phases.

  • Listen to criticism but choose whom to ignore.

    Critics are everywhere. Experts are everywhere. In this internet age with multiple channels available to every human being to voice their views, it is difficult to figure out whom you should listen to, when the chips are down. A general view is to ignore all those who criticize and look to those who give suggestions. That is sound advice at times but the best advice might come from those who are criticizing you. The best thing is to know whom to listen to. Some teams in the World Cup have not fared well because the team players starting criticizing the coach, their methods, etc. The Coach/Manager at the end of the day has the final say. The same applies to Project Management, listen to criticism from those whom you trust and who have a stake in the proceedings. There might be something that you are clearly overlooking but because of the way you perceive it, you simply brush it aside as mindless criticism.

  • Respect your opponents (competitors).

    You could be the best player of your era or you could be the best technical person in the project. Your team is probably going great guns in the tournament so far (Argentina) or you could have a product that is selling like hot cakes and eclipsing all competition. That does not mean you stop respecting your opponents. You should defer from bad mouthing or belittling them in the press because when the tables get turned, you end up cutting a sorry figure. All the teams have qualified through a grueling qualifying phase and at the end of the day, simply qualifying itself shows that the team can compete, give and take a few. The same applies to your competitors. They could have something in the works, which could stun you when their new product is released. So respect everyone and let your team (or product features) do the talking for you.

  • You need support at all levels and from unexpected quarters.

    No team is going to be successful if you do not get support from every level. In a football team, there are players, managers, support staff, etc. In a Project Team, you have developers, managers, testers and so on. Everyone needs to provide support in their quest of their target. It is also easy to overlook that support needs to come even from outside of the team. For the football team, it would be their federation, their fans and even support inside the stadium (why not!). For the project team, never undervalue the support that Top Management can give you to ensure that the project will be successful. Some of them may not look like direct contributors but their contribution is important.

  • Play to your strengths.

    Brazil is known for its beautiful football. We did not see much of it this time. Some theories doing the rounds is that the coach wanted them to play more like the other teams. I do not know how much of this is true but it brings up an important point. It applies to Project / Product Management too. There will be competitors in your space and they will have features that are different or better than yours. When faced with such a problem, it might just make more sense to play to your strengths and see how you can make that strength so compelling to the market that it becomes the norm and makes your competitors then play catch up. The strengths that we are talking about could be anything. It could be customer support, your documentation, a specific algorithm, almost anything.

I hope you can relate to the above points and do have a lot more points to add. I look forward to your comments. I leave you with an interesting statistic: The last time someone successfully defended their title was almost 50 years back, when Brazil won back to back titles in 1958 (in Sweden) and 1962 (in Chile). This surely means that if you are the leading firm in your industry, do not relax even one bit. Those who are down and out today or those who are just beginning could be the next winners!


30 thoughts on “What FIFA World Cup 2010 teaches us about Project Management?

  1. Excellent!!!!! To bad there was no reference to Ghana, hehehe!

    However, lessons learned and very nice post. I’m bound to share.

  2. Very well written and good analogy between the two streams. Some of my suggestions:

    1) There will be vuvuzela’s all around you, but you need to focus and concentrate on the task at hand (like Ghana and Germany did)
    2) Luck does not knock twice. Ghana had the opportunity in the last minute of the game to advance but sadly they missed it. One needs to perform when it counts.
    3) You need to prepare for the less used options/methods too. Many players missing penalty kicks or shootouts this time makes us believe that not enough effort was put in practicing that kick right.

    1. Moiz,

      Good Points made by you. I will add them to a list — once more contributions come in. And then maybe publish some more principles of Project Management


  3. Hi Romin,

    This is an excellent article and I would like to publish it on PM Hut. I (as well as PM Hut readers) love articles that relate Project Management to current events and draw some lessons learned. Please contact me either by email or through the “Contact Us” form on the PM Hut site in case you’re OK with the republishing.

  4. Hey Romin,
    This was a fantastic post – enjoyed reading it thoroughly. You draw some great parallels between the ongoing FIFA WC and Project Management. My personal favorite is the one that talks about the over-dependence on some key players… I call Rock Stars (http://www.activegarage.com/do-you-have-a-rock-star-culture-in-your-organization) & the one on planning – The Germany Vs. Argentina game (G – 4, A – 0) showed us the difference in planning on the two sides. There were no lack of skills on the Argentina side, but a total lack of planning – and as is usually the case, the consequences of lack of planning show up in the latter part of the projects (most of the goals against Argentina were scored in the 2nd half) with exponential and unrecoverable costs!

    Just my 2 cents…


  5. Well done – nice piece!

    However, I don’t buy the (stretch) analogy on root cause. The quality of officiating has been THE major story of this FIFA World Cup for me. It’s really screwing up some games and results. While I won’t go into all the incidents (if you’ve been watching the games you can re-count them yourself!) I will say that I believe specific incidents (symptoms, as you say) DO affect the performance of the teams involved and therefore the outcome. Germany may well have ended up the better team in that game against England, but I would argue that the disallowed goal created additional momentum for Germany and the opposite for England. An important football game is played as much in the heads of the players as on the ground. How would the game have ended up if they’d went into half-time 2-2? I can just imagine the different team talks in each dressing room!

    Having said all this – Germany is clearly a very good team, and I would have bet on them to go further in the competition than England would have. But once we get out of group play where every game is a cup-tie – psychology plays such an important role that you can’t just win games on skill and tactics (very important, but not the only critical success factors).

    I believe it’s easy to sit back and say – “Look what happened – Germany were easily the better team …… England didn’t perform …” But we see this all too often at work when someone with all the right skills and knowledge to complete a project get’s side-swiped by a boss (referee) who starts changing the parameters mid-stream. Motivation goes and the project fails! And who gets the blame?! It would be argued that a good project leader should be able to handle that type of situation – but as long as you have an interfering and/or incompetent boss (referee) – at some point you have to think about whether it’s time to go play somewhere else!

    Anyway, let’s not get too hung up on this. I guess I’m still venting – thanks for reading this far 🙂

    1. Hi David,

      Thanks for your detailed comment.

      Agree with you on the points that you have raised. The “Psychological” aspect is important and you couldn’t have put it better. Having said that, I can assure you that I have told everyone that I have met that if that second goal was allowed for England, that game might have turned on its head! 🙂

      I like the point that you have raised about a Project Manager / Boss changing the parameters and how it could take a huge hit on the “motivation” aspect. Have experienced that one for sure.

      Thanks for the additional points — I will use them for an update to this post, once more points come in.


  6. David,
    I totally agree with you in that circumstances within a game can and generally do change the tactics of the team. We’ve seen over and over how a defensively minded team holds strong for the majority of the game but once they go down one goal, their tactic changes and then all of a sudden they’re down 3 goals because they opened up the offensive to get back into it and get burned. See Portugal vs Korea. ( 1-0 at the half and 4-0 15min into the 2nd half)

    Similar was the situation with the US, where they kept having to make up for the errors of the referees and eventually were just burned out from always coming back.

    So, how does this translate to Project Management? Let’s think of those PMs that continually reward the arsonist for working all night and weekend to put out the fire. On the surface, it looks like a heroic effort however, the rest of the team knows that the “hero” being rewarding slacked off all week which is why he had to work all weekend but yet, the PM is rewarding the behavior. If this happens regularly, the remainder of the team will either change their tactic since their not being rewarded for getting things done on time OR leave the situation.

    Although the individual is a ‘problem’ or maybe even a ‘known error’ he is being enabled by the PM. The blame lays on both but since their is a hierarchy of command, it must be addressed by the PM and can’t be just pushed to the individual. There are always more firefighting arsonists so we can’t count on it being addressed at that level.

  7. Excellent!
    great post!!!
    Like you I’m not a football expert, but from all sports there is always something to learn.
    I agree with all what you say and also with the reader’s comments, especially all related with “Psychological” and “motivational” aspects.
    I am absolutely convinced that when you got two teams, where you can find most of the points you listed, what finally will make the difference between them is the motivational aspect, the human factor, as I like to say.
    -team work spirit
    There we can find the key point to success.

    Half of my hear is Argentinean, since I was born here, but half is Uruguayan, since my partner is from there. So this world cup was very special for me: I was very disappointed with the Argentinean team, because all what you said above, but I’m very happy and very proud with Uruguay, because nobody believe in them, but they believe in themselves, their mind, their spirit and their heart play and fight every second, they never give up.
    And above all, are extremely humble!.
    Yesterday they lost, but it was a wonderful match, and they fight till the end.
    For all of this, there is an expression: “garra charrúa” (Charrúan claws) and is used to refer to victory in the face of certain defeat, in situations in which Uruguayans display bravery in the face of overwhelming odds.
    I think…after we work in all of the points you listed so well, the key to success relies in something we can explain with words…we just have to feel it with our heart.

    Thank you very much for this wonderful post, it’s the best analysis I read so far!

    1. Hi Veronica,

      Thanks for your encouraging comments. And for putting it such a long and thoughtful comment. I agree with you and like David and Carlos below, that the game (or project) is played in the mind. Especially when you are a goal down or when you are facing issues/deadlines in your project.

      The Uruguay team have done themselves proud in the tournament and given everyone a belief that if you put your mind to it, the rest of the things will take care of themselves.


  8. Mr Romin Irani…our catch-up is pending 🙂

    Interesting post here…

    Though I agree on the project management part, sports depends a lot on other things as well…like psychology, mental strength and fitness (European teams are better here usually).

    Planning is definitely important looking at the way Spain and Germany have played. Both the teams have their unique style. Spain relies on ball possession and short passes, and Germany on counter-attacking.

    But in the case of Germany, credit goes to the fitness of their team…bcoz for their strategy to work, you need a bunch of guys who can continuously sprint up and down the field throughout the match. Not many teams can do that.

    In sports, it is very usual for a team to have a bad day; else Germany should not have lost to Serbia. A Germany beating Argentina 4-0 may not have repeated that had they met again in the tournament.

    And Germany England match really wasn’t one-sided as the score suggests. England were really playing well, and the referee’s decision did play a role here. This is pure psychology and patriotism at work…the same thing that goes in an India-Pakistan match. Irrespective of their forms before, on that particular day, their playing will reach a totally different level, and any bad decisions can easily demoralize either team.

    Ronaldo, Messi are good but Rooney and Kaka are over-rated. But if you have somebody like a Diego Maradona, who did single handedly won the world cup in 1986, it is very natural for coaches to make their plan around such key players. Ghana came a long way just because of Gyan…

    Be it soccer or cricket, most teams have their strategies around key players, 8 out of 10 times, it works. Most of them do have a plan B of course…but the problem in sports is that if your Plan A does not work, you have very little time to do anything successful with Plan B, and by that time the other team mentally reaches a state where they are ready to crush you…

    I still agree with your observations…its just that I feel sports involves something more.

    Long post…but I love sports man 😉

    1. Suresh,

      Thanks for the detailed comment. The points you raise are important. Many other readers too have pointed out the psychological aspect that could turn the game. I agree with that observation. It would be interesting to see how to apply psychology to how it could affect project teams. There are some comments on that over here but I would like to learn more about that from the readers.


  9. As always a great post Romin.

    One thing that i could think of is that of the internal politics that happen within the teams or sometimes from outside the team by someone having power. It could be a refree or umpire or a senior manager. These things never come out but are always present. Be it football, cricket, any other game or a project. The impact of such politics could be very high at times.

    1. Saagar,

      Thanks for the comment. I understand your point. It sort of relates to the point that Carlos & David have mentioned, where a PM/external entity could derail/demotivate the project.


  10. Great Blog. Would you mind coming over to London and managing the England side for us? It seems we need someone with this kind of objectivity!

    1. Hello Sophie,

      Thanks for your comments.

      Sir Alex Ferguson has recently stated that it is a terrible job 🙂 In fact, I think it is a great job. The potential upside if you get positive results is huge.

      If no prior experience managing a football team is fine ….. please let me know where I can send my resume ? 🙂


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