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What can Football teach us about agile frameworks & high-performing teams?



  • Do you know what the greatest professional football dynasties (1970s Steelers, 1990s San Francisco, and 2000s NE Patriots) all have in common? They were high-performing agile teams using the “football framework”.

  • Every week the world watches one of the most useful examples of how to cut through the “noise” of agile methodologies.

  • When you distill a project down; you find that is very similar to the game of football. — Objectives, measurements, milestones, hardships, changes, and goals. — One may also hear similar/interchangeable terminology…

  • Teams… especially agile teams, also look similar to a football team. — The planners, the leads, the playmakers, and those who work to make it come together.

  • Any team can be: “Mobile, agile, hostile!” like the famous T.C. Williams Titans Football Team — by thinking like a football player!

First Down: The most popular agile activity in the world: Football

{This segment will consist of a general background of football and a juxtaposition of the construct/players involved in both football & an agile team.}

  • The Basics:

  • Football game (similar to a project)

  • Football team possession (similar to a sprint)

  • Milestones & Measurements (downs)

  • Plans (plays)

  • Goals are scored

The Players:

  • The Front Office = The Organization

  • The Coaching Staff = The Product Team/Management

  • The people who define plans/plays and their expected outcome

  • The Quarterback = Team Lead(s)

  • The Running back = The hardworking colleagues who can “plow” through impediments

  • The Receivers = Skilled positional team members who help accelerate a project or goal

  • (On Defense) The linebackers, corner backs, safeties = The Quality Assurance team… ensuring that nothing negatively impacts the progress of the team

  • The Offensive/Defensive Line = The key support team members

  • This is a most interesting & typically underappreciated part of a team. These are the team members who understand the plan/play, know what the other positional players are going to do, and make it possible for the play to develop through “moving” impediments and protecting the team.

The Fundamentals:

  • While an exact 1:1 comparison cannot be made for each position on a football field, there are distinct similarities between the gridiron and an agile team.

  • We see that teams (both football & agile) are formed, primarily through “drafting” the players that they think can help them achieve their goals.

  • Plans (or plays) are drawn up, with a certain expectation of success

  • Those players work together, in unique ways, every time the ball is snapped to help them achieve those goals.

  • Teams typically have players with specialized skillsets, which allow them to build the trust of their teammates each time they execute a task.

  • Sometimes the unexpected happens… and plans/plays break-down. Teams need to know what their options are to mitigate risk or loss.

Second Down: How do teams identify what to do, when to do it & who should do it?

  • In football, during the course of a game, progress towards a goal is measured in a series of four “downs” at a time. If a team can move the football (without issue) 10 yards during those four downs, it gets a first down and continues to move toward a goal!

  • If a football team cannot make a first down, they must decide whether to punt the ball away, kick a field goal, or go all-in on the final down.

  • Similarly, to the downs in football, teams work (or sometimes “sprint”) toward milestones en route to a goal. At a basic level, the more goals a team achieves guarantees sustained project success. But sometimes things come up & plays break down.

Just as in football, it is important that teams know what to do in a given situation and when to consider the following:

  • What are the fallback plans is a play/plan breaks-down?

  • When is it appropriate to either get some of the “points”, or meet some of the goal (like a field goal), or punt to gain a new perspective?

  • In what scenarios should a team go all-in and “gamble” on getting something to the next milestone?

Third Down: Put it into practice!

  • Start thinking like a football team!

  • Huddle up before possessions or plays

  • Hold a daily scrum session & open lanes of communication

  • Football coaching staffs are notorious for their pep-talks, but between football games… they meticulously review film, analytics, metrics, and feedback to see where a team can improve. — This is exactly what a team should do! Some examples include:

  • Hold a retrospective after each “game” & review useful team metrics

  • The presentation will review an example of a useful retrospective activity (the football themed retro)

  • Make sure that discussions and retrospectives yield action items for the team to continue to improve.

  • Cultivate a team atmosphere. It is imperative that a team understands each of their roles, learns from each other & trusts each other. A team should understand that they are all working toward a common goal together.

  • Beyond routine execution of a play/plan, cross-team training & bonding is invaluable to creating this atmosphere.

  • Furthermore, team members will start to understand who can help or fill-in when difficulties arise.

  • Determine team options when a play/plan breaks-down — how will a team respond to adversity?

  • Design project plans, like plays, to have the ability to “check-down” or “hand-off” when needed — to ensure a team can get to that next first down

  • Hold effective planning sessions which design “plays” that utilize the strengths of your team.

  • For example: if a football team is better at passing the football that running it, they would design plays to emphasize that aspect of their game.

  • An agile team should design project plans and backlogs, which take into account how their team operates best.

Fourth Down: Tying the football mindset together

  • Of all of the thousands of books, literature, and discussions around agile frameworks, teams, and various approaches — it is useful to simply look toward the good ‘ol gridiron.

  • Adversity is part of the game, but it is how creatively a team can work together to both learn & overcome adversity and score.

  • Sometimes, a team must win by attrition, but the key is how you execute, plan, and grow as a team.

  • This thought process DOES NOT negate the use of a various agile methodologies (i.e. SAFe, XP, traditional Scrum, Kanban, etc.) — rather it is a team-oriented mindset which can be used to cut through “noise”.

Reiterated: When you distill a project down; you find that is very similar to the game of football. — Objectives, measurements, milestones, hardships, changes, and goals.

Reiterated: Teams… especially agile teams, also look similar to a football team. — The planners, the leads, the playmakers, and those who work to make it come together.


  • All should remember the now famous line from Remember the Titans. Teams should be: “Mobile, agile, hostile!”

  • It is not important to do everything by-the-book, or to follow a specific agile method to the letter, but rather to understand the fundamentals. — After all, this is key when considering the rationale behind the Agile Manifesto.

  • There will always be rules as well as organizational policies to adhere to — but a team should align their thinking to reach their goals.

  • Football offers insight into a proven “framework” focusing on team coordination, trust, and effective execution.

  • To help a team strive to be the G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All Time) they should start to think like a football player & use the “Football Framework”.

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What are metrics?



Interestingly, the use of the term “metrics” has increased rapidly, after the 1950’s. Does that mean that, as a whole, people have suddenly begun to standardize measurements of efficiency and success? — Yes and No.

Yes, standardization has become more common in recent years with the advent of organizations such as OSHA. However, humankind has always benchmarked various things and tried to do better or be more efficient.

One example of a historical shift in how things are done and measured is through observing the invention of the train. Trains allowed civilizations to abandon slower older ways of travel. In the 1800’s USA, mail traveled faster without using the “Pony Express”, and as a result of the new railways being built, telegraph wires were also run in parallel. The quantum leap in efficiency from the train also brought about other changes … and so on.

There could be a whole different conversation as to the interrelationship, or piggy-backing, of innovation — where other innovations were brought about as a result of something else (recall the telegraph wires along the train tracks) — but, back to metrics.

In the example, one can surmise that metrics is more than just numbers and benchmarking. The use of “good” metrics exposes areas of improvement. However, even good metrics are worthless without cultivating a culture where individuals are able to act on what is revealed.

For a brief case study, let’s consider the train example again:

It took the typical group of settlers 40 days (think Oregon Trail all you retro gaming geeks) to cross the American sub-continent, and it took the pony express 15 days. The whole reason there was a “Pony Express” was to attempt to expedite the flow of information to the West Coast of the USA. It was pretty obvious that there must be a faster way … thus the train and the transcontinental routes. But, do you think that these trains, materials, and routes appeared overnight? — No way! There were significant monetary and manpower investments put into their creation … and I’m talking Cornelius Vanderbilt style dough.

What’s my point? Well, someone somewhere (Richard Trevithick) during the Industrial Revolution (The Gilded Age) created a train to speed things up and make them more efficient. So, benchmarks were recorded and realized. Trains could now move info, people, and material across America within days. But, in order to make use of these advancements, effective investments of resources were needed (time, manpower, money, etc.). You see, metrics can be just numbers or comparisons … but, without knowing what they represent and how to act on them metrics are worthless.

The key to understanding and managing any type of metrics, is to recognize what’s important. In today’s

business and tech world, it is much harder to realize what metrics are telling us and what is actually important information to act on. People don’t always have the clarity of a decision between a horse and a train. And, usually, when considering metrics, productivity measurement

s, and areas of efficiency improvement, people already know WHY and WHAT they are offering or tasked with doing. Simon Sinek offers a good look into figuring this out here.

But, in order to effectively consider the state of what is being done and how to best make adjustments, certain observations must be made.

To distill it down, there seem to be three key focus areas which yield the best results when considered properly. Interestingly, I can’t bring myself to add Time as a key focus area, and perhaps you’ll see why that is.

People -

People are the most important factor of any project, product, team, endeavor, or just about anything else. Let me first clarify why … because you need people to both create and consume. That’s a big ‘ol DUH! If you aren’t playing to the strengths of your team and designing a product (or doing something) that others will use or take advantage of … then you’re wasting time.

The What -

The key area of people offers a great segwey into “What”. When considering what, seriously consider what. Ask the following types of questions:

  • What am I doing?

  • What kind of a team am I dealing with?

  • What are the team’s strength?

  • What is the most important part of what is being done?

  • What is the timeframe that it needs done in?

  • And so on …

The Why -

“Why” Ask the following types of questions:

  • Why am I doing what I’m doing?

  • Why is the most important part of what is being done actually the most important part?

  • Why is the timeframe defined as it is?

  • And so on …

These types of questions should be asked consistently throughout a project, task, etc.; whether it be in a 2-week style sprint retrospective or otherwise. These types of questions should be an ongoing cycle. Think:

People first.

What are we doing? Is what we’re doing adding value to the end consumer in the preferred timeframe and manner?

Why are we doing it that way?

​​When you align whatever numbers, measurements, or metrics to these key focus areas, the result will be useful/actionable information — like a story. Ronald Regan once said: “Don’t be afraid to see what you see.” However, I would add: “But be afraid of not making the right changes.”

How can metrics be “dangerous”?

So, if the good use of metrics can reveal actionable items, what are some examples of bad metrics? Well, in short … all metrics are bad and meaningless if they don’t facilitate improvement.

I was recently recalling a development team which was being measured on common metrics such as velocity, engineering days, and say/do percentage as part of a 2-week sprint cycle. This team was meticulous in their estimations (again, that could facilitate an entirely different conversation), and so they were burning down hours. Interestingly, the team realized that they were having difficulty completing all of the work they planned to in a two-week period. So, in order to look better to management teams, they overestimated stories and inflated their working hours. That meant that what work may have typically took one day to complete, was planned to take 2–3 days and the hours worked were manipulated along these lines.

When the numbers were published, it looked as if the team did the same amount of work, in terms of velocity and effeteness, and met their commitment, when in reality they did less! The most important thing in the case of this team was not what it should’e been (the people, the what, or the why), but rather how they looked to management and their peers. While there is some merit to measuring up … what good is it if causes delivery slow-downs and hinders quality work?

What now?

One may wonder the best way to move forward? Simple: Measure what’s important.

There’s and old adage which says: “What gets measured gets managed.” Ok. But, why manage anything that isn’t important? Back to my thoughts around the advent of more efficient transportation, like the train. If you focus on what’s important, not only will value be added, but other creative and useful things can come to be! By looking at the core reasons something is being done and how to best improve/add value, the next best steps can be taken (whether that be additional research, new development techniques, or the like).

The most valuable thing to offer stakeholders (people) is giving them what they want, by understanding what they need and then getting it to them efficiently. A final thought, which can be applied to any type of team or process: Why do something, in any manner, if the end result is not useful. — The whole rationale around recording and managing metrics should be to increase visibility, share feedback on what’s being done, and push things “forward”.

Think about what’s important. Measure that. Adjust. Repeat.

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