The Dutch: Total Soccer, Compensatory Movement, and T-Shaped Skills
With the World Cup taking over the headlines, we couldn’t miss an opportunity to bring two of our favorite topics at CC Pace together: sports and Agile. As Team USA gears up to take on the Netherlands, here’s a little history on the unique style of soccer the Dutch created and what Agile teams can learn from their success.
In the 1970s, the Dutch dominated their international counterparts by using a style of soccer they called totaalvoetbal or total football. Total football requires each player on the team to be comfortable and adept enough to switch positions with any other player on the field at any time. The Dutch required the goalkeeper to remain in a fixed position, but everyone else was fluid and able to become an attacker, defender, or midfield player when the play dictated it. Whenever a player moved out of his position, they were replaced by another player. Successively, all other players on the team shifted their positions to maintain their team structure. In modern soccer, we call this collective team behavior compensatory movement. All teammates compensate and adjust to each other’s actions.
This philosophy helped create teams without points of weakness that their opponents could exploit.
Totaalvoetbal only worked because players trained to develop the skills needed to play all positions. Each player was a specialist in a certain position or role, such as striker or center defense, but was also quite competent playing other roles on the team.
In the Agile world, this can be applied to the makeup of scrum teams. Scrum teams that are self-sufficient because of their fluidity are always the most productive and dependable. If scrum teams are comprised of team members with “T-shaped” skills, then there will always be team members that can fill in for others when needed.
People with T-shaped skills have a deep level of skill and expertise in one area and a lower level of expertise across many other areas. When scrum teams are comprised of team members with T-shaped skills, it helps to ensure that all work can be completed within the team. It also means that productivity is less likely to drop when a team member is out of the office because others can roll up their sleeves and help get the job done.
Cross-training and pair programming are great ways to help develop team members with T-shaped skills. Pair programming is an Agile software development technique in which two programmers work together at one workstation. One, the driver, writes code while the other, the observer or navigator, reviews each line of code as it is typed in. The two programmers switch roles frequently.
T-shaped skills are not developed by accident but rather intentionally. Careful planning and a thoughtful, proactive approach by the individual and their manager are crucial. A manager must understand the value of investing in the development of people. Cross-training, stretch assignments, training opportunities, shadowing, and pair programming are all excellent methods for developing additional skills that allow for compensatory movement and fluid teams, yet, in some ways, represent short-term reductions in individual productivity. Managers must make this short-term investment to see the long-term value and score more goals.