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Management Lessons From Hard Knocks

It’s Super Bowl season and everyone is usually excited either for the big game or for the half-time show.

While the Super Bowl is great I usually get excited with the NFL around August. Why August? Well, I suppose most people reserve their summer holidays for that period, so there’s that.

Another thing that happens in August is the NFL preseason kicks in full swing. And while the anticipation is great, that’s not why I’m writing this. I’m writing this because August for me is synonym with Hard Knocks.

Hard Knocks is a reality TV show from HBO that goes behind the scenes with an NFL team. Every summer we get to listen to Liev Schreiber narrate the challenges rookies have to navigate to make the 53 men roster as well as the antics of the team’s primadonnas. But the most interesting aspect for me every year is the coaching staff and their ideas and interactions.

A few leadership books have come out over the last few years based on famous NFL coaches or leaders and that’s great, but nothing beats seeing coaches in action and the effect their techniques (or lack of) have on players and staff.

Here are some of the lessons that I picked up from over a decade of watching Hard Knocks.

Always Have a Depth Chart

If you haven’t heard of a depth chart you’re not alone. At my previous job when I mentioned them at first none of my colleagues knew about them but soon took to using them.

A depth chart in NFL lingo is nothing but a matrix of all the roles and positions you have for the team (e.g. Quarterback, Running Back, Wide Receiver, Offensive Lineman, Cornerback, etc) and how many people you have that can fill that role or position.

In the NFL you have an offensive team, a defensive team, and a special team for those occasions when you need to punt, defend or attempt to score a field goal, kickoff and return, etc. This means that not only does the depth chart allow us to visualize how many quarterbacks we have but also how many roles a player can fill. Devin Hester, a former player with the Chicago Bears, among other teams, started his career as a cornerback but made his name returning punts and kickoffs, even scoring the first, and only so far, opening kick of a Super Bowl. Later he proved his versatility by converting to a wide receiver. On a depth chart, DH could theoretically appear in three different cells, albeit in different order and priority of usage.

So, how can we use this in our own teams delivering software?

A key tenet I abide by is to always attempt to make myself dispensable. In order to do that I have to constantly be growing great engineers into leaders. Suppose my director asks me how are we doing in hiring and how much headcount do I need for next year. Should I just shrug my shoulders and say something like “gimme as much as you think you can get”?

Depth chart to the rescue! Grab your manager friends and go over the whole business unit for instance. Why do it with friends? Because everything is better with friends of course! I joke, but an important aspect of this is calibration. Without going into details it’s very important that expectations are leveled and calibrated among managers and teams (if your organization doesn’t have a career path with a framework for calibration now is a good time to start).

Get all your roles such as Junior Software Engineer, Mid Level Software Engineer, Senior Software Engineer, etc. Then for each role see how many people you have in that role. You can go further into discussions of performance (a Senior Engineer is not performing at their level) but I’ll leave that for now. The simple version just assumes people are performing at or above their current level. Once you’re finished you have a simple visual tool for seeing how many people you have for each role of your organization. Sometimes a simple trick like this is all you need to understand you need to ramp up your hiring pipeline at the graduate level. Or maybe you find out that you’re not growing seniors fast enough and if one of your two seniors leaves you may be in trouble.

You can even go further with this and adopt a matrix style of the depth chart for expanded roles (kind of like a RACI matrix) and figure out who is able to fill in which role.

Practice Constant Feedback

This one should be easy and self-explanatory but let’s roll with it. It’s a well-known practice that today’s best organizations perform some sort of feedback rounds, like a 360-degree feedback review, where you ask for feedback from your peers, managers, and collaborators.

Well, it’s not that different in the NFL. The best coaches do it all the time. If a player caught a difficult pass, they’re there applauding them. If the player dropped the ball, they’re there yelling…not really. The really good ones save it for later. They go over it with their position coaches and offer feedback in private if it’s quite bad. Of course, if it’s really impactful and in the moment, the coaches still grill the players. It comes with the role.

I don’t suggest we do the same in our workplace, as high-pressure as it might be. This is one area that I must emphasize it’s different when you’re an NFL player, not that I would know.

And it’s not only the coaches that do it. The show offers glimpses of what makes great players great and apart from natural talent and lots of hard work you’d be surprised at the number of players that ask for feedback from position players. It’s quite normal to see rookies getting advice from seasoned veterans. If this is not mentoring in action I don’t know what is.

So make sure you’re allowing time for constructive feedback in your 1:1s and if you see someone doing something great, praise them.

Delegate, Delegate, Delegate

I’m not American, that should be obvious from my name, so my drug of choice as sports are concerned has always been soccer (just football for me). In a soccer team, you usually have 3 or 4 coaches. The head coach, one or two assistant coaches, and a goalkeeper coach. Sure, there’s more staff, like the doctor, physio, etc, but they’re not the core of the technical team.

So when I started watching the NFL around 15 years ago I was confused with all the coaches and staff on the sideline. Why do they need so many of them? Turns out an NFL team is quite big. There are 53 players on the main roster and more in reserve and training teams. American football is also a very specialized game, to the point a player in a position may not be able to play in another position due to completely different physical requirements. The pounds that are handy when you’re trying to protect your quarterback from the opposing team’s linebackers, by literally forming a wall around him, aren’t great when you’re trying to run across the field like you’re competing with Usain Bolt to catch a ball flying through the air.

The head coach can’t do everything. He can’t keep up with the personal issues of dozens of players. He can’t find enough time in the day to assess the competency of every single player and design offensive, defensive and special plays, and prepare the scouting report on the opposing team. So he delegates. He delegates to his coordinators, position coaches, and assistants. Every one of these may then delegate more to their own assistants and so forth.

There is a clear set of expectations from each coach and before, during, and after each game the coaches meet to talk about them. The head coach coordinates everyone and is akin to a CEO or VP of Engineering at least with multiple Directors under him.

You should do the same. It’s hard to keep track of every feature on the backlog and help the PM refine it while you’re worrying about reviewing the career plans of your engineers. And that recruitment plan which includes refactoring the job specifications while reaching out to your recruiter to get the latest from the university campus action that happened last week? Oh, I have about 100 resumes to review now? Don’t even get me started when a struggling team member is thrown into the mix. If you don’t believe all of the above will coincide at some point in your career, you’re either delusional or into wishful thinking. Which are kind of the same thing aren’t they?

So prepare yourself and delegate. Identify key individuals and prepare them by coaching and mentoring. Start them with smaller tasks that you have done multiple times. And then when the storm hits you’ll have your back covered.

Oh and the bonus? People are usually thankful that you gave them new tasks and responsibilities to do. That’s actually how they grow and you make your depth chart heavier on the senior roles.

Release Every Week

Every Sunday an NFL team releases. Whatever challenges they had during their week (sprint) they are now putting all their hard work (training, strategy, tactics, play design) into production. The fans appreciate it and usually, they leave satisfied, especially when their team wins.

What if an NFL team didn’t play that week? And the week after that?

They would just go on training relentlessly, thinking that “the fans will love it when they see us play”. But more often than not what will happen is that the fans will not see them play. A number of things conspire against this. It can be running out of money, time, people, patience, or all of the above. The truth is that it’s better when you release it. Even the Detroit Lions showed up week after week in 2008. And even though I bet it was a miserable slog the good news is that there was nowhere to go but up after that. They got Matthew Stafford and got better. Not by much, sure, but better. And the season after that they kept getting better eventually getting a winning season and making the playoffs for the first time in decades.

It’s the same thing with the software we are working on. If we don’t put it in front of people we’ll never know the ugly truth of it. It’s sure to be riddled with bugs as much as we control for quality and advocate for best practices and the worst is that it might not even be what people hoped it was. But guess what? We can only get better.

Next time you’re thinking of postponing that release think about the ‘08 Lions.

Retrospective Everything

The NFL is famous for having obsessive coaches that analyze and measure everything leaving nothing to chance. But of course, there’s no such thing as a guaranteed score. And a plan is only good when you get to use it, even if it’s for that rare occasion. But after you have a plan, you retrospective its usage. And then you adapt and improve it.

Before and after each game they sit together with key players analyzing plays and dissecting what went wrong and what went right. Coordinators and position coaches regularly review footage of players in training and in-game and make notes for them. Players spend hours studying video and analyzing what went wrong in the last play of the game.

This type of culture is indeed…obsessive. Although I wouldn’t obsess too much about everything the useful takeaway from this is that we should plan, measure and plan again.

How do you know if your features are having the desired business impact? Measure it and do a retro on them.

How do you know if your process is supporting the intended release schedule? Measure it and do a retro on it.

Of course, in order to measure something you need to know what to measure and that is where the planning becomes important. Without at least a plan you won’t know what to do anyway. Once you have a plan, for whatever task or objective it might be, you can identify what you want to measure and then later reserve time to think about it, analyze and come up with any adjustments needed.

Apart from classical sprint retrospectives (which should be well-known by now) to do continuous improvement in a single team I can suggest group retrospectives either for a group of teams together or a function. Have you ever done a management retro? It could be painful to dissect all the decisions you and your manager peers have done over the last 3 months and how have they contributed to business value but nobody I met will deny it’s not useful.


And there you have it, a few management lessons that I’ve picked up from watching the behind-the-scenes of the NFL.

It doesn’t matter the area in which you’re working, great lessons are always useful and as such, I hope you find this useful in your work too.