Case Study: Soccer Smarts Deals with Post-Early-Stage Maturation Challenges

Image: Two adults in the midst of an active discussion, one pointing to a laptop on the table near them. Author: rawpixel. Source:

Image: Two adults in the midst of an active discussion, one pointing to a laptop on the table near them. Author: rawpixel. Source:

Consider what happens once an organization proceeds from the early stage to maturation; it is easy to think the hard part is done, but the reality is every stage comes with its own challenges.

In this case, we’ll consider the (fictional) organization Soccer Smarts, which provides out-of-school time support to underserved youth, using soccer skills and activities to engage kids in the broader program which includes academic supports. Soccer Smarts had a national program model, operated by affiliates across several states; some affiliates offered just the Soccer Smarts program and others were massive organizations offering dozens of programs including Soccer Smarts. One of the fairly established, mid-sized affiliates was scaling up - it had been operating Soccer Smarts as its core program for several years and serving two major cities in its state, and was looking to expand to local mid-sized cities.

The Soccer Smarts affiliate felt like a stable organization to its staff, volunteers, school and community partners, and youth and parents. The program model was well-established and the team was proud to have made it through the first few years of major changes, at-times unpredictable funding, and major learning hurdles. Some people thought the organization was a bit top-heavy with a five-member senior leadership team, but for the most part staff were happy and deeply engaged, powered in large part by long-term relationships and feelings of buy-in strengthened by the early days. Many of the internal operations processes were relatively well-tested and implemented consistently, including financial, fundraising, and HR activities, and the program activities were largely dictated by the national organization.

While the general consensus was that the organization was in a “smooth sailing” pattern there were some glitches, which were particularly disruptive since the organization felt it had come so far. The two salient examples were decisions about growth and measuring outcomes. Some of the long-term staff, including a home-grown CEO, wanted growth decisions to be made based on the strength of relationships with community partners; some others, including other members of the senior team, wanted to focus on strategic assessment of mid-sized markets. The national program required certain measures of activities and outcomes be recorded in a proprietary database, and most of this affiliate’s staff were interested in a deeper approach to measurement. But that’s where the easy agreement ended; what “measurement” meant to different staff was very different. In both cases, there was a great deal of awkwardness - on the one hand, everyone felt things were moving calmly and smoothly (and that this was deserved after the early stage challenges), and on the other, there were evident tension about key decisions. The tension was mounting because Soccer Smarts had new funding tied to growth and outcome measurement, so everything felt “on the line.”

As a result of these tensions, some of the most positive aspects of Soccer Smarts felt like they were breaking down:

  • Staff were starting to distrust the existing and strong processes, especially those tied to measurement, since there was such discomfort about metrics.

  • The skilled but relatively inexperienced CEO was now spending nearly all her time trying to facilitate staff harmony, which did little to affect the core organizational challenges.

At Deep Why, we would recommend consultation and facilitation to help tease apart the various needs, which span strategy and model, and the day-to-day tools, processes, and team engagement that support these.

Learn more about the concepts and theory behind this case study in the post “Organization Lifecycle: Maturation (or Scale-Up)