Google+ Blueprint for Football: The Product Line Methodology - An Introduction

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Product Line Methodology - An Introduction

As a professional geek (I'm an IT Business Analyst), there are certain books and concepts you encounter that have a profound impact on your career. One such book is this one - "Software Product Lines: Patterns and Practices" by Paul Clements and Linda Northrop.

The two authors are gurus from Carnegie Mellon University's "Software Engineering Institute", and they have a handy way of making what could be a complex and overwhelming concept easy for people to understand. That's not to say everyone would find the content interesting, you understand - it's specific to organisations who generate software products after all. Chances are your eyes would glaze over pretty quickly if you weren't looking for something specific in the first place, so hey - I might as well summarise the useful stuff right here eh? I mean, how the @*^k has this got anything useful to contribute to a debate about football?

Well, as you start reading, the book quickly shows you how generally applicable the concept is. It does this with the help of a Mexican restaurant (and as you read, it brings to mind a Billy Connolly routine that says pretty much the same thing).

You see, in most Mexican restaurants, things are pretty simple. You get a menu that lists several dishes on the premise that they're somehow fundamentally different. But unfold the parcel and it quickly emerges that, for the most part at least, your average Mexican dish consists of much the same component ingredients as pretty much every other item on the menu. What's different about them? Well, the wrap's folded differently. Or the veg and salad are sat on one side. And maybe the grated cheese and refried beans too. But then again - maybe not.

Clements and Northrop set out in a simple diagram how the raw materials of meat, vegetables, cheese, beans, sour cream and salsa sauce can be combined in various ways to produce what seems like a varied and exotic menu. And here's the point - your average Mexican restaurant operates what's known as a "product line".

Now - it's important before we start to make one key point: a Product Line is not a Production Line. A Production Line is what Henry Ford set up to produce identical finished products, of reasonable quality, at relatively low cost, and in huge quantities. In a youth development context, that might appeal to some people, but unless every player is Pele, chances are you won't want every single kid who graduates to be identical. You need a blend of qualities with a core set of shared skills and strenghts, don't you?

Enter the Product Line methodology - the whole point of which is to deliver exactly that. Over to Clements and Northrop, who I'll take the liberty of paraphrasing (cos the products we're talking about aren't bits and bytes).

"A {product line} is a set of {products} sharing a
common, managed set of features that satisfy the specific needs of a
particular market segment or mission and that are developed from a
common set of core assets in a prescribed way."

Now - this definition, while intriguing, presumes the existence of certain 'building blocks' - pre-requisites if you like, that must be in place before things start.

  1. You must understand your market segment or mission.
  2. You must understand the features that satisfy the market segment or mission.
  3. You must have some idea of how to develop products that deliver those features in a 'managed' and 'prescribed way'.

In the football context, I'd argue that translates as follows: you need a clear idea of how your organisation will play the game, and you need a blueprint that describes how your finished products will deliver according to that vision, mission, or philosophy.

Sound familiar? I'm guessing it does, as it's been a hot topic over recent months and years in this country. What we've lacked, arguably, is a structured analysis of the underlying domain. Sure, we've seen interesting interviews with people like Fernando Hierro at the Spanish FA and the coaches and management involved in developing the set up at Barcelona, but while we've seen evidence of the need for a clear defining philosophy, it's not clear how they go about implementing that philosophy, at least not beyond the idea of "la rondo" being repeated ad nauseam. Barca may do that training drill until they're blue and red in the face, but there's a lot more to it than that, even if it's not clearly defined anywhere. That club, and the footballing establishment in Spain, have a clear recipe, and indeed a superstructure of recipes, that enable them to produce the kind of football - the product - we've seen from their club and national sides in recent years.

We'll look at the detail in later posts, but the goal of our analysis is this: we'll understand our business domain, then we'll think about the kind of players (products) that satisfy that domain, and last but not least, we'll think about the coaching and management architecture best suited to developing and 'deploying' those players.

That's it for part 1 - there's a lot of stuff to chew on in that snippet, after all. More to come as soon as I find some time to write it!


  1. The underlying method of Barca, Spain, Mourinho, Porto, and pretty much all of the Iberian soccer culture, as well as a high proportion of Dutch Football, is integrated methodology, or Tactical Periodization. The defining features that separate professional players from amateurs, with the exception of the top 10% of players (Alonso, Rooney, Zidane, Hoddle, etc) is speed and repeated sprint ability. Train these concurrently with the drills (Rondos for Spain, Modelli for Italy), and you have an integrated philosophy which not only trains the technical and tactical side of the game, but by proper manipulation of work to rest ratios, also trains the specific fitness needs of the type of football desired. Very much a product line philosophy, but as you said, it goes much deeper than just las rondas.

  2. That's right I think. What you describe (rondos, modelli) in "software product line" terms are 'patterns'. They're central to the whole methodology and can be applied to pretty much every individual and collective product's development, but they themselves fall within a greater pattern. It's an interesting concept to apply to the footballing context. There are gonna be holes in the analogy I'm sure, but it could be informative as a way of deconstructing the way certain clubs are run.