The Manager as Referee
After my bi-weekly rugby practice last week, I stopped for a customary pint with the team. Former coach and senior referee Jeff Simpson(who goes by Simmy on the pitch), recounted his recent trip to Scotland, where he witnessed the various referee styles utilized at the highest level of the sport. As we nursed our pints and aching muscles, Simmy noted that the very best matches are not “referred,” per say, but “managed.”
At this statement, I couldn’t help but hear the parallels between referring rugby and managing a design office. In my world of branding, and interaction design, the more that the so-called ’agile’ development tightens its grasp around project management, the more it calls into question the role of the manager.
A referee in rugby should “blow his whistle only at the start of a match, the end, and to put the ball back in play,” according to Simmy. Or, to paraphrase a dead President, the referee that refers least, refers best.
Finding patterns that allow for minimal managerial involvement, while empowering everybody ’playing the game,” means not managing to personalities, or even knowledge, but rather about sensing the style a team might play in. It also means subliming one’s ego for the better playing of the game.
A chief tenet of refereeing rugby depends on keeping the ball “in play,” i.e. allowing some infractions to slip if they do not impact the turn of the game t0 the advantage of the team at fault. For non-players, this approach is effectively the opposite of American football, which readily stops the game to restart at every infraction caught.
Setting goals early that define what you’re willing to let pass, and what will not stand.
Finally, Simmy concluded, the best satisfaction for a referee is when players enforce each other’s behavior, pointing out foul play or penalty worthy offenses to each other.
Finding ways to minimize both intended and perceptual intrusion, while offering incentives for self-reliance.
Now, if only there were a pint waiting at the end of every tough management decision.