What can soccer tactics tell us about the limitations of planning and logframes?

Universal outrage over Fifagate reflects the fact that football/soccer is fast becoming a universal institution (at least for the

Logframes as Route One
Logframes as Route One

male half of the universe), creating some useful common reference points. As an example, check out this use of soccer tactics to explain the limitations of the logistical framework tools that we increasingly depend on (logframes to insiders), from an organization with the rather baffling name of Global Partners Governance. (American readers please note, for us Brits, soccer = football)

‘The logic of football offers one way to understand the limitations of the logframe. Logframe linearity assumes a ‘route-one’ style of play, or at least something similar to it, where the ball is kicked forward and forward again, and then inevitably into the net (the goal). While this style of play has been favoured by some teams (most notably, and to its detriment, the English national side), it is generally not how teams score.

Forward, sideways, backwards and forward again
Forward, sideways, backwards and forward again

In reality a football will go in many different directions before it ends up in the goal – if indeed it does. The ball will be passed sideways, backwards and forwards. Players will be tackled, possibly fouled, driven off their original direction and lose the ball. The ball will be kicked out of play and the flow of the game will be constantly disrupted by one intervention or another

This is much closer to how a governance project will work in practice. Any project is likely to have numerous stakeholders with a direct interest in supporting or preventing progress. As opponents start to disrupt progress, so the supporters need to change tactics and style of play, perhaps making the occasional substitution to counter the effects of the opposition. The interplay of all those actors, and the different resources and skills they have at their disposal means that progress is much more likely to resemble the passage of play in a football match rather than anything that appears in a logframe.

In football, as in politics, there will also be a huge amount of activity during a match

.Trying to capture everything
Trying to capture everything

that does not directly affect the progress towards a specific goal. Working out what activity is relevant will emerge only as the game progresses. At the start, it is impossible to identify how each of the 22 players will behave during ninety minutes. And yet, the current application of logframes means that we are essentially being asked to predict the entire passage of the match – and the actions of both supporters and opponents .

Worse than this, that guesswork is then used to create the indicators of success. Projects are measured against an ability to predict, reasonably precisely, how a goal will be scored before the match has started. Without taking into account the opposing side, the conditions or the fitness of your players.The bigger danger is then one of simply following a preset plan, regardless. If you know you’re going to be measured against the activities you said you were going to do then you will do your damnedest to make sure you stick to them, ignoring whether they are actually working or not. In short it makes process more important than outcomes: “Well, we didn’t score but, rest assured, we did exactly what we said we were going to do.”

Logframes as gameplans

football 4It is far better to think of a logframe as a game plan. It is based on an analysis of both your team’s strengths, and that of the opposition. It seeks to understand the tactics that they might use, and counter them, as far as is possible, by playing to your strengths. At the simplest level this would mean deciding what formation to play (1 – 2 – 3 – 4; 2 – 3 – 5; 3 – 3 – 4 or something else entirely), which player is responsible for what, and accepting that you might change that formation at some point during the game.

The logframe should, in short, set out the project logic and the theory of change. These are strategic considerations. The tactics, namely, when to move from defence to attack and which players you pick (like the choice of activities) are tactical considerations that will need to change as circumstances dictate.’

The paper then departs from football and becomes much less convincing (or interesting) on how to deliver more effective projects.

The offside rule is also a handy intro to institutions by the way, and Rakesh Rajani has a whole shtick about soccer and development. Anyone fancy pulling this together into a manual?

[nb this post also appears on the Guardian Development Professionals Network blog]

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16 Responses to “What can soccer tactics tell us about the limitations of planning and logframes?”
  1. Makarand

    I like the use of soccer in your post to talk about log frames. Makes it much easier to understand. May be one day you will do one using cricket 😉

    I am a bit puzzled though when you espouse the usefulness of log frames after rubbishing it for most of the post. I am not sure that thinking of Log Frames as game-plans makes them easier to digest. The problem is that log frames do not stay put at determining, to use your analogy, what combination *you should start the game with*. They force you to predict *at the outset*

    what combination you will always play with for 90 minutes (no provision for injury time, extra time, golden goals and definitely none for penalty shootouts)
    what substitutions you will use and when,
    what will happen when and how you will know.

    Getting all of this enmeshed in donor (and recipient) bureaucracy just means that you can kiss ‘nimbleness’ good bye.

    I would much rather wave goodbye to the log frame as it fades into the sunset.

    • Suvojit

      Cricket is no doubt a superior analogy because the environmental conditions come into play a lot more. Rain, heat, humidity, wind, soil on the pitch, length of grass – all factors external to what skills and tactics the 22 players + 3 umpires bring to the game.

  2. James Whitehead

    A quick note in favour of logframes. When I receive a project document it’s the first section I read – maybe there are others out there like me. The logframe provides a short summary as opposed to pages and pages of words in the main document that often do as much to obfuscate as they do to clarify the intent and deliverables of the project. A decent logframe shows me what change we are seeking in clear and specific language. It also shows how we will know whether that change has happened. I can then see what the main components are that we believe from our shared analysis will bring this change. I can see what the planned activities are and how much they will cost. It’s an easy way to see if it all ‘adds up’. I know from the logframe whether it is a plausible project and I can see quickly whether something obvious is missing. Of course it’s reductionist – it’s usually only 3 pages long. We worry about the straightjacket of a logframe because we know the world is unpredictable and we know we are engaged in complex overlapping systems. Yet I’ve found that almost every project veers away from the original logframe, though often not for the right reasons. Good project design, good project management, regular review points based on what’s working and what’s not and a flexible, two-way relationship with those funding the project allows us to adjust course over the project life (working with others like a skillful, fluid football team). Yet throughout remaining focused on, and measuring, the change we seek (i.e. the Goal) for (and with) people who are poor and marginalised.

  3. Maggie B.

    Nitpicking here but how about we do away with the outdated assumption that women don’t care about sports, particularly the most popular one in the world? For a tiny parenthetical observation, you’d be surprised how much it rankles to be reminded, yet again, that I have to prove myself as a sports fan, despite having played the dang sport for most of my life.

    • Duncan Green

      Apologies for offence Maggie. I agonised over this, because I have women friends in both camps. Apologies for offence, but it is the case (at least in my experience) that lots of women I know remain deeply bored by men who can only talk about football. So is it a stereotype? Undoubtedly. But is is an accurate one? Discuss

  4. Chris Maclay

    Well this is exciting. Strangely enough, I wrote a whole paper about what development programming can learn from football a while back in Development in Practice (http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09614524.2015.983460?journalCode=cdip20). It has a heavy focus on the equivalent role of Jose Mourinho (donors, as well managers in some cases) and a case study of one Barcelona-esque DFID program in Bangladesh. See what you think!
    On a side note, I would be very happy if all fp2p posts could come in football analogy from hereon in. Thanks in advance.

  5. Dan Jones

    Thanks for this Duncan

    I think the point about opponents is critical, and entirely missing from the way we usually think about programming and development more broadly. Unjust social systems and structures don’t survive without serving someone, often someone with significant power, and so we can’t expect to change them without meeting resistance.

    James (and Duncan, a bit) – surely the key point is the degree of predictability and control implied by the logframe? A “gameplan” would say something like: “This is our desired goal / domain of change, we have these resources, we see them contributing to change in that area in these ways, we anticipate some of these kinds of problems, and this is our relevant track record”. This is not at all the framing (explicit or implicit) of a logframe. Perhaps logframes shouldn’t create a false sense of fixity and certainty is fine, but I think in general they do, and this is to do with the frame.

    I do agree that some programmes fail the plausibility test in ways that are particularly easy to spot in a logframe – but I’d argue that they generally fail the plausibility test in lots of other ways too, which aren’t that hard to pick up and can be put on one side of paper with a theory of change. I’d also argue that lots of programmes (more?) don’t fail the plausibility test in a logframe, but they do fail in reality – and a “gameplan” might be better at surfacing this.

    PS As I can’t make the link work any more, I can’t prove that I wrote a very similar blog during the last World Cup, but at least the truth is out there now!

  6. Varja

    Thank you Duncan for ending on the “logframes as gameplans” point (though I note it’s rather brief in comparison to the previous sections). In the currently popular development speak where everyone is sure they’re tacking wicked problems steeped in complexity, where politics is the word of the day (though what that means changes from paper to paper), and we all want to be doing it “differently” — in this world, a clear, unpretentious frame which sets out the logic (theory) of a particular initiative without tying it down to detailed tactics is worth a thousand poetic words. (and i happen to be a poetry fan myself)

  7. Maureen O'Flynn

    I read these blogs most days and obviously some are more useful than others ( and frankly it beggars belief that even Duncan can have brilliant thoughts every day!).
    BUT this post is actually brilliant and supports very visually much of what i incorporate in training and and facilitation around the use of ToC
    No planning instrument that includes measurable indicators at the outset is any use for critical reflection or the testing of assumptions. “Proving” and “improving” are not compatible bedfellows…

  8. Maureen O'Flynn

    PS I am a woman and I “speak” football for two very good reasons:
    1. I have sons
    2. In every country I ever work I have great conversations with project teams, hotel staff, taxi drivers…

    Mostly I have no idea what I am actually talking about, but its a great relationship starter/builder – don’t underestimate its usefulness it!

  9. Jose Tenga

    I am a bit surprised that development professionals are discussing this ‘log frame’ issue purely from the perspective of the ‘donor/external implementer’, totally omitting the true reason the project exists in the first place: to bring transformative change in the lives of the client population. The football analogy may provide clarity but it does raise the question: who are the opponents, i.e. the other team and who are the referees?
    My view about log frames center around one question: how would the deliverables positively transform the fortunes of the poor? Do they, after all? When we focus on explaining the success of the project without reference to the recipient population, are we not simply parroting our accomplishment for our audiences? In spite of the imposition of expectation on the ‘poor’, that baggage our projects, how inclusive are our reports, i.e. do they include the ‘voices/perspectives of the client population who should be the true evaluators of our projects?
    Let the debate continue!

  10. gawain kripke

    Soccer, it turns out, is a surprisingly robust analogy for learning about development, institutions, and inequality. My favorite soccer analogist is Branko Milanovic. He studies the role of internationalizing club teams in elevating national-based competition (see “migration”, “brain-drain”, inequality). Paper here: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=477661.

    More recently he’s blogged with a very interesting perspective on FIFA-gate – arguing that the corruption endemic to FIFA reflects a popularizing trend that is, arguably, good for the game and good for expanding the soccer franchise to less privileged. The alternative to a corrupt FIFA might not be a cleaner, but global game, but a cleaner, but much more elite game – like tennis. See here: http://glineq.blogspot.com/2015/05/the-real-stakes-behind-fifa-scandal.html

    Come for the deep history of FIFA, but stay for the delicious spat with Nate Silver.

  11. Matthew Cummins

    Great and enjoyable post!

    Penalties take the logframe/programming analogy to an even deeper level vis-a-vis their unpredictability and game-changing nature which are further compounded by game theory and unrationale assumptions of rationale behavior…

  12. Greg Power

    As the author of the paper – and Director of Global Partners Governance, the organisation with the “baffling name” – I thought it might be worth making a couple of brief points in response to those raised. Although first, thank you to Duncan for spotlighting our work.

    The paper is based on an a speech I gave during the World Cup last summer at an International IDEA (http://www.idea.int) seminar on how to measure impact in ‘governance’. It is essentially an argument to those working in the field, that it is up to us to come up with alternatives to the logframe. Far too many discussions amongst project implementers simply end up agreeing on the logframe’s shortcomings, but fail to come up with workable alternatives.

    I agree also with Jose Tenga’s argument, that there isn’t enough discussion of how this links to transformative change. That’s the central point of the paper. Logframes have several different purposes. The principal one is ‘quality assurance’ for development agencies – or other funders. That is, to reassure funders that project implementers are hitting their targets and spending the right amount of money. But this tells you very little about the effect of a project and there is, at best, a tenuous link between logframe indicators and how change – and especially political change – happens.

    That’s what we at Global Partners Governance are now working on, attempting to find better ways to understand and measure the impact of political programmes. More papers on this will appear here soon: http://www.gpgovernance.net/know-how/#politically-agile-programming.

    Although, having yesterday watched Bradley Wiggins set the world record for cycling the furthest in one hour, I’m tempted to try bike analogies next …