SoftServe Design
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SoftServe Design

Constructing the best pitches in football is as important as having safe spaces in our design work

Modern groundskeeping can make all the difference in winning and losing like inclusive rituals can determine the success or failure of our design teams’ work

If you’re under a rock, you’ve given up watching television, or are American — apologies to my country people — you may not know that the 2020 UEFA European Football Championships are going on. Also called Euro 2020 (delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic but the year didn’t change), there are 24 countries currently playing, including Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, England, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, and Ukraine among others. France (2018 World Cup winners), Germany, Netherlands, Portugal, and Wales — to name a few— have been knocked out. And this is a big deal for anyone that follows football, especially if your team is from Europe.

From UEFA Euro 2020 qualifier Germany-Estonia game, taken by Steffen Prößdorf
From UEFA Euro 2020 qualifier Germany-Estonia game, taken by Steffen Prößdorf

As a design director for a distributed company based in Europe, the U.S., and Singapore, I have been following the matches best I can, keeping up with coworkers’ and friends’ teams — I don’t have a favorite team, so don’t ask. Some highlights, I was on the edge of my seat with Artem Dovbyk's match winning header in the 121st minute in Ukraine over Sweden last Tue, the nail biter of a game between France and Switzerland coming down to penalty kicks, and Belgium vs. Denmark with all of its emotions, but I wasn’t aware of how much goes on underneath the players’ feet for these matches until I read this article in The Guardian a few weeks ago about how integral groundskeeping has become in the sport of football.

And like many topics, I began wondering how this might apply to the work I do.

Jonathan Calderwood checking the pitch at Parc des Princes stadium in Paris in 2016. Photograph: Franck Fife/AFP/Getty Images
Jonathan Calderwood checking the pitch at Parc des Princes stadium in Paris in 2016. Photograph: Franck Fife/AFP/Getty Images

The article in The Guardian opens with Jonathan Calderwood, a groundskeeper who joined Paris Saint-Germain Football Club from Aston Villa in 2013. Originally from Northern Ireland and a two-time Groundsman of the Year, Calderwood had been headhunted by Paris SG because of a recommendation from Gérard Houllier, former manager of Aston Villa as well as Racing Club de Lens, Olympique Lyonnais, and Liverpool among others.

“They had an injury list the length of your arm,” Calderwood recalled. A more stable pitch would start to solve that problem. But there was a more tactical reason for signing Calderwood: before his arrival, the pitch was too slow, too bobbly, too unpredictable for the kind of high-tempo passing game played by most of Europe’s elite teams. “The owners realised that it wasn’t about buying 11 world-class players,” said Calderwood. “They needed things behind them to allow them to work. One of the main things was the pitch.”

Since Calderwood’s arrival, Paris Saint-Germain has won Ligue 1 six out of eight seasons, and just as importantly, from Calderwood’s point of view, the Ligue de Football Professionnel’s best pitch award six times too. After winning the league in 2014, then-manager Laurent Blanc credited Calderwood with 16 of the club’s points, because this pitch had made the team’s attack so much sharper. The club has put him on billboards and he is featured in national TV adverts. (Zlatan) Ibrahimović, once the club’s star striker, jokingly complained that Calderwood was receiving more media attention than he was.

— Ralston, William (2021). ‘The Silicon Valley of turf’: how the UK’s pursuit of the perfect pitch changed football. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/football/2021/jun/15/silicon-valley-of-turf-uk-perfect-football-pitch

And while I’d never considered it, this makes total sense. The quality of the surface — grass, ground, etc. — makes a difference in so many ways: how a player might land on it, how someone might lose their footing on some surface defect, how effectively the ball will roll for a pass, how a ball will be kicked for a goal, etc. And a player will play differently on different surfaces and that also affects physical safety.

From Chelsea vs. Leeds in 1970 during the FA Cup final. Photograph: Bob Thomas/Getty Images
A scene from Chelsea vs. Leeds in 1970 during the FA Cup final. Photograph: Bob Thomas/Getty Images

Being able to drain a field after heavy rains or repair a field quickly after a match, those features are also important. As such, modern fields have become very technical and use mostly natural grass but also artificial fiber to anchor or augment the grass. Which explains why I don’t see dry spots or muddy patches anymore on football pitches which seem to dominate pictures from more than 30-40 years ago. I don’t know about you but whenever I see old football and rugby pictures, I’m not sure which sport I’m looking at until I can spot the ball. And it’s not just football, these kinds of fields with hybrid surfaces are now also used by professional rugby as well as American football and baseball teams.

Speed of play is also important with its worldwide audience so football needed a better playing field for that. Enter the fields of today with mostly real grass with some manufactured components with all of the money, effort, and innovation that they entail.

A view from 2016 of Etihad Stadium, home of Premier League club Manchester City F.C. Photo by Cléria De Souza.
A view from 2016 of Etihad Stadium, home of Premier League club Manchester City F.C. Photo by Cléria De Souza.

Case in point, The Guardian article points out that when Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola arrived in 2016, he wanted the grass cut down to 19mm which would facilitate the ultra-fast play he was known for at his previous clubs, Barcelona and Bayern Munich. But Guardiola settled for 23mm because short grass is more vulnerable to wear and tear and Manchester’s cold climate means that the field couldn’t recover as quickly. Similarly, after the 2016/17 season, Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp told the groundskeepers that the pitch at Anfield was too slow. In response, staff reconstructed it over the summer with natural grass reinforced by 20 million polypropylene fibers, and the Reds went the entire next season unbeaten at home in the league.

So, the idea of these newer pitches with natural grass and some artificial framework on which to grow reminded me a bit about Alison Gopnick’s book, “The Gardener and the Carpenter” — which I also mentioned in an article on two of the four principles that I follow in my design work and management, making the time to be curious, creating the space to fail, and inviting everyone in.

And at this point in reading The Guardian piece, how modern pitches are made feels absolutely related to how we best prepare for and work in experience design and service design teams.

But before we get there, let’s take a step back.

There’s a lot of discussion about safety these days — safety being the state of being protected from harm or other non-desirable outcomes — and this goes for relating to physical (think: structural as well as health and hygiene) along with mental and emotional space, in the ways we work and within teams. It’s on a lot of people’s minds right now.

So, let’s talk about this notion of feeling safe at work. The Harvard Business Review wrote “High-Performing Teams Need Psychological Safety. Here’s How to Create It” in 2017 while Forbes and The New York Times came out this year this two other articles on the same subject matter, “How Psychological Safety Actually Works” and “Why Is It So Hard to Speak Up at Work?”. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, a lot of people and teams are talking and writing about it.

Safety and fear cannot exist simultaneously in the same place at the same time. Forbes has said so as well as the National Safety Council, McKinsey, The Center for Creative Leadership, and IDEO. And fear can take many forms: being afraid to speak up, feeling uneasiness about keeping your job, not advancing properly according to your ambition or skillset, or feeling left out of the conversation. How can we remove a little bit of that fear — giving us all the time and safe space to do our best work? Or, how can we open our doors a little bit wider to let more people into the work that we do?

And this isn’t an undiscovered country. People have written about some of the best practices to build design teams — take Peter Merholz and Kristin Skinner’s Org Design for Design Orgs and Dan Brown’s Designing Together as two book examples. Search on the Internet for “design team building” or “design team org” and you’ll see what I mean. But in building or rebuilding, don’t we want to build something better than it was before?

Work outputs are subjective — whether it’s a spreadsheet or an annual report or it’s created by a team of people or a solo practitioner — and this is doubly, sometimes 3x, true in digital product design work.

In my line of work, there’s a common idea of critique, where a design or set of designs are analyzed and feedback is given on whether it meets its objectives — whether those come from the client, the team/agency, or some other source. And this is different from the hovering art director of years past who would offer their judgement and experience.

In 2017, Adobe made a “hovering art director” figure as a promotion for its stock-integrated service for Creative Cloud
In 2017, Adobe made a “hovering art director” figure as a promotion for its stock-integrated service for Creative Cloud — there’s a few videos in the same vein, here’s one example

This isn’t that kind of judgement that hangs around in the background, critique is different.

A statement of judgement would be something like: I don’t like blue. And a statement of critique would be more like: that blue doesn’t seem in line with brand guidelines. The ultimate goal of a critique is to make a design or designs better, to improve it somehow, or, at the very least do no harm — and that goes for the work and/or the designer(s).

In addition to this idea of critique, I’d like to highlight two additional practices that I’ve found as indispensable in my work as the quality of the field/grass you play on in football matches: your group values and the practice of retrospectives.

Let’s start by digging deeper into the idea of design critiques.

Critiques

In another life, I worked in theatre, sometimes as a playwright — short plays, long plays, fling plays on a weekend for ScriptWorks — sometimes as a sound designer for a variety of productions around Austin, Texas, and for a while, I even wrote theatre reviews for The Austin Chronicle, the alternative weekly newspaper in the Texas capitol. And when a play was being read or workshopped, we would often follow choreographer/dancer Liz Lerman’s critical response process after the reading/performance/presentation. It usually went like this:

  1. Generally, what really popped or felt evocative in the work
  2. Fielding any specific questions from the writer
  3. Neutral questions from the audience — by this, it was understood that the questions weren’t proscriptive in a way, like, I’d rewrite this character to say this thing or this other thing should happen in this way
  4. Then, the writer could opt-in to receive opinions from the audience, proscriptive or not

Underneath all of this, there’s this implicit idea that the group is working together to help the writer and make the piece better, not to tear it down. And that is a powerful thing.

I’m suggesting to give feedback as a kind of Hippocratic oath where we pledge to “do no harm” to people and their work, only ever-improving — for instance, ask a designer what features or structures they have questions about in a design or a project.

We talk a lot about human-centered design in the way that we position our work, it makes sense to also use that same lens in the work itself.

Bringing your whole self to work doesn’t just mean showing more of your true self or being more authentic, it also means supporting our peers and managers’ needs, rising to meet their needs. And vice versa.

Your group values

Every group has their system of values — whether they’re stenciled on a wall in the lobby of your office or it’s more of an invisible coda that everyone understands. Whether this is a team you’re starting or a group you’re joining, I would first ask, How does gravity work in this world? Do these values make doing our jobs easier or harder?

And then, to go further — is there a set of shared values for the group you’re in? Is there a set of values for the larger organization? Do they jive with each other? If not, shouldn’t they?

Each person who works in whatever place we’re talking about has their own founded experiences that are valid and real. How do people feel about the group values? Are these values to which everyone subscribes? If not, what are the right agreements for the group?

If you’re starting from scratch, this process might go differently but I think it keeps a lot of the same things in mind. What good is it to have values if they’re just empty words written on the wall in the lobby?

Values are not black and white. They’re not simple. They are nuanced, subtle, and relative. Like those people with whom we work and then like us.

In 2016, the Anfield pitch was replaced, it was last replaced in 2001
In 2016, the Anfield pitch was replaced, it was last replaced in 2001

Value trade-offs happen in the context of our relationships and often as we navigate our shared work. True, values are emotionally driven and therefore, when people in your organization are not aligned in their core values, things can spiral quickly.

Be patient and iterate. Keep moving. Make incremental improvement. But don’t be afraid to tear up the field to make space for a better one.

The practice of retros

As a practice in both Agile and Scrum methodology, a retro is a moment where your team can reflect on the past to improve future work or the next project. Whether it’s a non-technical or technical team, you can do a retro for just about anything by setting the stage and asking the following questions:

  • What went well? What’s an example of success?
  • Where did we fall down? What can we learn from those moments?
  • What do we continue? What are the next steps?

Some also phrase it as a version of the stop, start, and continue exercise. Software company Atlassian breaks their retro process down to answering these three points:

  • I like…
  • I wish…
  • What if…

Really simple and nice. In all of these, something seems very similar in spirit to Lerman’s questions above, which were developed in the 1990s and written down in her and John Borstel’s 2003 book, Critical Response Process.

There are many other ways that you can build inclusive rituals in your design teams, but these are a few ways to get started.

In conclusion

There’s a moment in Ted Lasso, the AppleTV+ series where the title character played by Jason Sudekis first sees the AFC Richmond pitch and walks out through the stadium to touch it. Almost immediately, Nathan Shelley (played by Nick Mohammed) comes running across at a full sprint, telling him not to touch the grass, “Oi, excuse me. Off, off! Stop touching the grass. Get off, get off the pitch. Stop touching the grass please.”

Watch the clip below.

A clip from the first episode of the first season of Ted Lasso

One of the unsung actors on the show is Mohammed’s well-meaning but unconfident kitman. It’s worth a watch just for him.

Wondering where to find out more about some of things mentioned in this article? There are a ton of places to learn more about why and how to run a critique, here are a few places to begin:

Figure 8–1. A simple framework for understanding the components of design culture from “Org Design for Design Orgs: Building and Managing In-House Design Teams” by Merholz and Skinner
Figure 8–1. A simple framework for understanding the components of design culture from “Org Design for Design Orgs: Building and Managing In-House Design Teams” by Merholz and Skinner

For values, in my opinion you should start with reading chapter 8 of “Org Design for Design Orgs”, in which Merholz and Skinner write, “It begins with values, which form the bedrock of a team’s culture. These are the mindset and principles the team upholds. Those values are made manifest through an environment, the figurative and literal context and spaces in which the team works. And then the values and environment in turn drive activities, the behaviors and practices of the team. ”

And similarly for a retro, three places to visit:

If the pitch is a sacred thing for any football team’s success, then shouldn’t these rituals and tentpoles be the same along with safety of our teams? Design critiques, core values, and retrospectives are three key ways to build trust, level up the team, and make better work.

Thanks for reading. Let me know what you think, I’m always open to hearing others’ points of view — whether they’re the same as mine or altogether different.

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Design-related thoughts from the team of 100+ geographically distributed and multi-domain problem solvers.

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Skipper Chong Warson

Skipper Chong Warson

Design director at SoftServe, host of How This Works, coach with Plucky, advisor at Shep. Formerly at thoughtbot SF, Fjord NYC, and PBS FRONTLINE among others.

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