On soccer and statistics: don’t reduce people to data!

On soccer and statistics: don’t reduce people to data!

The FIFA World Cup is in full swing. So, how about we have a closer look at soccer? While it used to be a purely physical activity, data has played an increasingly important role to soccer teams across the globe. As it turns out, leveraging statistics is worth their while. That’s great, but in the process we tend to forget that people are more than zeros and ones. If we try and reduce them to data, the team might very well lose the game.

The unpredictability factor

It’s the day of the big game, and the team is getting ready to play. As players stride onto the field, analysts withdraw into their small rooms. The second the game begins, these analysts start collecting real-time data which they share with coaches. The latter use this information to make on-the-spot decisions, such as substituting players or changing their positions in the field.

So far so good. This type of short-cycle decision-making can work. But in the weeks and months following the game, the data retrieved is used to make similar decisions in the long term. That’s part of the average team’s strategy these days.

Again, this may be effective — but only to a certain extent. Let’s not forget that analysts reason from theory. They look at historical data to forecast (near-)future events based on probability. The danger is that coaches allow data to guide their choices without considering that all-important human element: the unpredictability factor.

Practice and autonomy make perfect

Most professional soccer players have studied strategies and techniques for years. But ultimately, they become great through practice and autonomy. You can’t predict a game from A to Z — if that were possible, watching it would be the most boring thing in the world, and soccer fans wouldn’t exist. The excitement is in the unpredictability of the game, which stems from the fact that 22 players make their own decisions during those nerve-racking 90 minutes.

Once they’re on the field, it’s up to them. They’ll use all lessons learned to make choices that hopefully help them win the game. But to do so, they need a certain degree of autonomy. If you make every decision for them based on data, they’ll feel that their hands — or, in this case, feet — are tied.

What to do instead? Use data to create a framework within which players are free to make their own decisions. Provide them with actionable information and insights, but also give them some elbowroom. That’ll increase your chances of winning.

Using data to empower your employees

The analogy we’re about to draw is pretty obvious, but for the sake of completeness, let’s spell it out: instead of using data to limit employees, a manager should create a data-based framework that provides them with actionable knowledge and insights and supports them in making independent, real-time decisions.

Want to explore your Visual Management opportunities? Please don’t hesitate to contact us. We’re happy to perform a Quick Scan and discuss your information sharing strategy.

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