Recently, as I was coaching one of my kid’s soccer practices, I noticed a group of 5- or 6-year-old children who were having their own soccer practice on an adjoining field.
I noticed they were falling into a familiar pattern that so many young children do as they learn the sport.
They were playing what some people call “swarm soccer.”
As I watched the kids play, it was a classic demonstration of swarm soccer — everybody chases the ball; nobody holds back.
The only players who were standing outside the swarm to receive the ball — should one of the kids in the swarm get lucky enough to actually kick the ball to him — were the two goalies.
These two kids were standing in front of their respective goals bored out of their minds and passing the time picking daisies.
For any of you who have ever watched young kids learning to play soccer, I’m sure you recognize what I’m talking about.
A swarm of your own?
As I watched this swarm of kids moving up and down the field with their short little legs kicking furiously at the ball, each other, and anything that moved, I thought about how similar this looked to the management style and organizational structure of some small businesses.
Apparently I’m not the only one who has recognized this similarity. Dr. Ichak Adizes noticed it, too, and wrote about it in his book, The Pursuit of Prime.
He observes, “A go-go company organized around people rather than around tasks eventually develops an extremely complicated structure. People do not know who is accountable for what. The organization acts like a team of small children playing soccer: Every one of them goes for the ball, and, from the sidelines, they look like a swarm of locusts moving around the field. They all try to kick the ball and end up kicking one another in the shins and crying. Their coaches spend time lecturing the children on the value of teamwork. ‘Stop fighting,’ they tell the kids, ‘and help each other.’
“The coaches’ speeches fall on deaf ears because the kids have no idea how to play as a team. The coaches have to tell them what their positions are and that they must stick to those positions in a way that does not ignore the ball.”
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to identify who the workers are and who the managers are in this “swarm soccer” metaphor for business.
Swarms that wreak havoc
Swarm management doesn’t just exist in new or in smaller companies, either.
I’ve seen it in multi-million-dollar companies, and I’ve seen it in companies that have been around for generations.
And, as opposed to being cute, as it is in pee-wee soccer, it can wreak havoc on a company. It can cause talented people to leave your organization, and it can cost your company an awful lot of money.
When our companies are small, our organizational charts are straightforward and easy to understand.
Everybody reports to the owner. If orders are to be given, it’s usually the owner who does the giving.
But as our companies grow, it’s easy for our organizations to mutate into a confusing mess where people don’t know what their responsibilities are, employees are afraid to make even minor decisions, and two or three people are doing what only one should be doing.
Frequently, these companies’ chains of command look more like obedience charts than organizational charts since everybody continues to report to the owner.
An innocent start
Swarm management starts innocently enough.
Either by accident or by design, you start your business with a structure that works well. Everybody knows what his job is and does it reasonably well. Things seem to click along smoothly.
Then things change: Sales grow, employees are added, and the balance that seemed to work so well in your smaller company — where everyone knew what his responsibilities were and where all the bases were covered — doesn’t work anymore.
Sometimes people get added to the company so quickly that nobody takes the time to reassign job responsibilities.
Or perhaps old, loyal employees have worn a rut in their jobs and don’t want (or simply aren’t qualified) to do jobs that need to be done in your larger company.
Needed: More people?
To fix this problem, you add even more people to the payroll in a Band-Aid attempt to plug the holes and stop the bleeding.
You might add someone to help with invoicing, or chase receivables, or answer the phone, or return your phone calls.
Maybe it’s somebody to supervise projects, estimate work, and keep the warehouse organized. Or maybe all of the above!
Before long, the structure of the company has morphed into a creature that nobody recognizes and is neither efficient nor a fun place to work (See “Where’s the time?” to the right).
Adding people to your company without making the necessary changes to your organizational structure is like a person who puts on an extreme amount of weight in a short period of time.
Their skeleton can’t support the weight. They become bloated, they lose their agility, and their health is seriously compromised.
Any time you add people to your company, ask yourself whether it’s because of sales growth or because of disorganization within your company.
If it’s because of disorganization, maybe it’s time to streamline things and reassign responsibilities rather than hire more people.
If you’re adding people because of sales growth, this is a good time to revisit your organizational chart to re-evaluate the needs of your company based on its increased size.
Now that you know what swarm management is and how it can cause chaos to your company, we’ll visit how to structure your management system for complete success — in my next article.
Chuck Violand began his career by founding a carpet cleaning and disaster restoration operation in northeast Ohio in 1977, and in 1989 began consulting full-time. Each June, Violand hosts an Executive Summit to help owners and managers of cleaning and restoration companies learn the executive skills necessary to manage a growing business (visit www.violand.com for details). Violand can be reached at (330) 966-0700.