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Just Having a Strategy is Not Enough

If you have ever watched a group of kindergarteners playing soccer, you know that having an objective is not the same as having a strategy. 

Soccer ball 2

The objective of the kindergarteners is no different than that of an elite professional team. Get the ball into the opposing goal as many times as possible. The logical way to do this, for a six year old, is to get to the ball and kick it, as many times as possible. Put 22 of these little strategists together with a ball and you get a swarm. 

An elite team goes after the same objective in a completely different way. They have a better understanding of the importance of position, potential moves, anticipation of what their opponents will do. Plus, with years of practice together, they can react and communicate in much more effective ways. 

The elite team coordinates action to meet the objective. The six year olds are merely a collection of individuals with a common goal. 

Importantly, there’s no one micromanaging the elite team’s actions. Through training and practice, the players have learned to function as a unit, knowing and anticipating what each other will do in a given situation and acting accordingly (a proprioceptive team).

There’s a lot to learn here for a business context: 

  • It’s not enough to simply have a strategic objective: 

Telling an organization to meet an objective without ensuring alignment and training leads to unstructured behavior, the business equivalent of swarming the ball. 

  • You need to be thoughtful about the roles and responsibilities of the team: 

Everyone needs to know what they are doing and how it fits into the bigger picture. Without this, you will end up with everyone on offense or no one in the goal. 

  • There needs to be constant feedback: 

Things are constantly changing. The quicker the team recognizes circumstances are shifting, the faster they can adjust in ways that protect and advance the objective.

  • The team needs to be trained for both the expected and the unexpected: 

Training and practice creates a shared knowledge of what to do when familiar challenges arise or when new problems emerge, meaning less time lost in disarray.

Too many times in my experience, objectives are shared without the rest of these conditions in place. It’s the managers in the middle who bear the brunt of the resulting confusion. Senior leaders are frustrated that middle managers aren’t getting results. Frontline employees blame their managers for the confusion and chaos. 

Micromanaging from the top sets in. Morale in the field gets worse. The managers in the middle feel squeezed and abandoned. 

We need to stop throwing middle managers into these situations unprepared. We need to: 

  • Give them clear strategic direction - the what, the why and the how
  • Better define their role and give them a broad tool kit to deliver on that role 
  • Train for adaptability to unpredictable circumstances
  • Having done all that, get out of their way and let them do their job
  • Give continuous feedback and coaching to help them when they stumble, fostering a learning culture 

Middle managers are the key to effective, proprioceptive organizations. If you are looking for support for the middle managers in your organization, or you’re a middle manager looking for coaching, send me a message at