Like at least a hundred other Australians via TV and the thirty or so at the Gabba, I had plenty of time to think about the ups and downs of sport while riveted to the cricket test match. OK, “riveted” may be an exaggeration, but still… it was on the TV and I passed by the room from time to time. In one of these moments, I wondered just how relevant modern sport might be as a metaphor for contemporary business. While not a new concept, this is what occurred to me:
In every professional sport, and a lot of amateur ones, there is a lot of thought put into analysing the strengths and weaknesses of self and opposition, and then planning tactics often in great detail. The best also have backups, alternatives, on-the-run measures of success and an expectation that opponents will respond in predictable and unpredictable ways.
Stack the Odds
Cricketers talk of “bowling in good areas”. On the assumption that they aren’t talking about joining the Vaucluse lawn bowls club, they are referring to behaving in ways that put the odds of success in their favour from the outset.
Winning sporting teams know to press home an advantage. A game can be turned with a run of results in even a relatively short time, raising confidence, motivation and energy. Momentum also feeds the human thought-trait of feeling that a current moment is a predictor of the future, and so a short-term run of wins or losses can feel like a continuation of that pattern is inevitable, and so we act accordingly.
Building from positive momentum and positive tactics is a positive, optimistic attitude which releases testosterone, increasing risk-taking and energy levels. There is however the danger of confidence becoming overly so, bringing complacency, arrogance and repetition, creating opportunities for innovative and aggressive competitors. In particular, teams that react positively to pressure, coming together in rising to meet and beat a challenge on the front foot are more likely to succeed than those that negatively take a defensive or avoiding back-foot stance.
Sports teams that believe they deserve to win often do, overcoming obstacles and rebounding from setbacks along the way. They display resilience where those with less self-belief give in more readily.
Every sport, even the individual ones, are team efforts – fellow players, practice partners, coaches, advisors, mentors and others are all important for peak performance. Often a team struggles to be better than the weakest individual performance so it is important that all members are selected, supported and managed in ways that help them to raise the capabilities and performance of the team, rather than merely feed off the work and talents of others. Think interdependence rather than dependence or independence.
Exploit strengths, cover weaknesses.
The other week I listened to an HR person from one of the world’s top consultancy companies (by turnover, not results) tell of recent research of 1.4 million employees across 80,000 workgroups where the primary finding was that the highest performing groups were those where members were allowed to perform to their core strengths. Seriously. They could have got the same information by asking for the opinion of the coach of the local under 10s team where the coach chooses who plays where, while players collaborate and complement each other in playing to strengths while covering individual weaknesses. It’s pretty basic stuff – but surprisingly uncommon in the workplace, where employees are told to get better at what they’re not good at but rarely allowed to do what they’re best at more often while being supported by other employees who are good at the other things. It’s why great teams work. No rocket surgery involved.
Team ahead of individual
A hallmark of great teams is that the people within the team know that they are better off by being in the team, while holding themselves accountable for their own contribution. As soon as one person feels they are being held back, excluded, unsupported, incapable of performing, their goals don’t match team goals, or their approach doesn’t match that of the team, it’s best that change occurs straight away. We’ve all seen the damage caused when “heroes”, instead of sacrificing themselves for the team, sacrifice the team for themselves. It’s culturally cancerous in both sport and business. No-one is bigger than the team – even the star player and especially the leader.
Despite the positional power granted by their title, sporting captains really only have the power granted to them by their peers, so in building winning teams they have to be worthy of (at least) respect, trust and followship; continually renewing that right through selfless dedication and example in pursuit of goals, adherence to values and personal and interpersonal behaviours. A leader of a sporting team who seeks to take credit, shed blame and abuse positional power is unlikely to last, let alone succeed – but isn’t it interesting (or frustrating) that so many people in professional leadership roles do exactly these things and expect to succeed because of, rather than despite, them?
Teams as purposeful social systems
Sporting teams are more social than work teams – and all the better for it. We are more trusting, committed to and likely to sacrifice for those with whom we have a personal connection and bond of affection – and who we know would do the same for us. Trust and mutual commitment are not just nice words, they are infectious habits. Can you imagine a successful sporting team with the same level of mutual care, trust and commitment shown in most workplaces? Me either.
Excuses, reasons, poor umpiring, bad luck and a myriad of other elements may help to explain poor performance, but in the end the success of the team is ultimately measured by the scoreboard. Accept, it, understand why it is, celebrate it if appropriate, and then move on. The challenge for business can often be in deciding what the score board should be measuring.
This is not the first time sport and business have been compared – many ex-sportspeople get regular business speaking gigs and the competitive similarities have often been drawn. However, it seems that while the normal points of tactics, resilience, high standards and team make-up are important, in recognising natural human emotions and behaviours there is a lot to be said for developing teams as purposeful social systems where people work to common goals and individual strengths, sharing trust and a commitment to the success of self and others under leadership of example, selflessness and service.