Last night was a terrible one for Manchester United. They were comprehensively beaten by Newcastle United, a team six places behind them in the premiership. In some of the post-match reports the spine of the Newcastle team were heralded. This is a phrase that you often come across in football (soccer) and many other team-based sports. The spine of a football team is: the goalkeeper, one of more central defenders, one or more central midfielders and at least one of the forwards. The spine of the team is the core that allows the rest to perform around them. A spine that is in unison, strong and powerful is key to success of any top-flight sports team. The spine discussed in these reports is a team within a team (eleven people on the pitch) within a team (the squad of players and the management, coaching staff and other supporting members). There are often many spines within different organisation structures, but there can be only one performing on a football pitch at the moment of play.
The Telegraph described “There was a pace and purpose to Newcastle’s football, a quickness to their tempo as they poured forward, black-and-white-striped streaks”. The report goes on to describe how the different elements of the spine of the team were critical in making this situation real. Each player brought something to the spine on the night. They clicked. They were in harmony. It wasn’t really expected though.
It is amazing to think that on a different night, in different conditions the same spine may have been completely ineffective. Or, with one change of personnel in the spine, they may have been overrun by six goals the other way. That is the reality of teams in different situations. Individuals can make a difference, both positive and negative. Normally the Manchester United spine is the one lauded at the end of a match. Not their opposition’s. Manchester United, on the night, lacked a spine.
Shared purpose, interdependent roles and shared responsibilities supported by an organisational structure and a goal that measures the team, not the individual, are important. But they also need to have time together to be effective. They need to learn instinctively who will do what and what skills are required to deal with different situations. They need to examine the conditions they are going to be playing in and who the opposition is going to put in their way. Tuckman’s model of Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing explains the phases over time that are required. This happens both outside of the playing pitch and then also on any single time that team get together to take on their opposition.
In business there are many teams each requiring strong spines. The elements of a spine is normally made up of individual members who come together to bring different elements of a business into cohesion. These are the people we trust, make things happen, generally good communicators who know their roles and responsibilities, and the skills of the wider team, what is important and how to get things done with the people around them. The similarities to the team within a team within a team notion is clear. When developing new IT systems or products the players on the pitch are the team delivering the work. They are (or should be) supported by other well-functioning teams (finance, PMO, HR, Project/Programme Management) with interconnecting member who help them prepare for, plan and execute to meet the goals set by the wider organisation and by them themselves. If any of these teams don’t have strong interconnected spines then trouble for the team on the pitch looms. The team playing the game is not enough.