Lessons from the AFL

Photo of Curtis Lusmore Curtis Lusmore

The footy is back on again, and I was thinking about what lessons we can take from team sports, like the AFL, and apply to team environments at work, like a typical software development team. So in no particular order, here are ten lessons I think that we in software development could learn from AFL teams.

1. Good teams aren’t a strict meritocracy. You couldn’t take the twenty-two best individual players in the league (e.g. as ranked by Brownlow votes from previous season) and expect to make a good team. You need diversity of skill-set to form a well-rounded team.

2. Okay, but what about a meritocracy for a specific position/role? Still no. Some players work well in some teams but not others, because it really depends on how well they align with and compliment the existing team. There might be some characteristics that are non-negotiable in your environment, and others where you want variety and diversity. There’s no universal “best person for the job”. Everybody has something unique to offer.

3. Okay but what about a meritocracy for very similar players in the same position based on experience? Still no. You need to invest in your juniors. If you keep giving all the opportunities to your “best” and starve your juniors of experience they’ll never grow, and when the seniors leave you’ll be left with nothing.

4. Leadership is not the same thing as seniority. Don’t assume that your most senior people are automatically suitable leaders, or that your most junior aren’t. Good leaders can come from any level within your team, so don’t let lack of seniority stop good leaders from leading.

5. Leadership is not the same thing as management. The captains of teams don’t need to be “managers” or have org-hierarchy over their team. Don’t let “X isn’t mature/experienced enough to have management responsibilities” be an excuse to stop X from being a leader.

6. Leadership is not a job function. “Captain” isn’t a position. Leaders can be in any role, and they don’t need to spend all of them time doing “leadership duties”.

7. Roles are more important than job titles. There can be clearly defined positions/roles, and for sure some people are better suited to some than others, but that doesn’t mean everybody needs a job title identifying their role. Stay flexible, let people fill the right role for the situation.

8. You don’t need a ladder of titles to reward growth. There is no “Senior Full Forward”. That’s not to say all ladders are bad, just that promotions aren’t the only way to acknowledge and reward growth. Make sure people actually feel acknowledged and rewarded for growing.

9. The best players don’t necessarily make the best coaches, and the best coaches don’t have to have been the best players. Being a good coach is not about being a skillful player and then teaching others how you do it, it's about serving the team and supporting each player to be the best they can be.

10. And of course, the obvious lesson—it’s a team effort. Sure, the best players tend to be on one of the best teams, but the best individual player doesn’t make the best team. And no matter how good an individual effort is, what truly matters is the success of the team.