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Seven Lessons Learned from Team Sports

by AIMM MAITD

All too many businesses muddle through until they go out of business. The more fortunate ones are taken over. Over the years, I have watched with interest the way team sports are played out on and off the field. Not surprisingly, I believe there are critical lessons that all business owners and managers can learn from sport to help their business stay ahead of the pack.

For sports people, learning these valuable lessons is the difference between winning and losing the game. For business owners and managers, grasping and acting on these lessons literally means the difference between staying in business and going bust. Just what are these lessons? Let me illustrate using the game of basketball as an example.

Lesson 1: Know the name of the game.

Every basketball player knows why they are there and the aim of the game. They know they are there to win the game and that winning means scoring more points than the opposing team within the space of four quarters.

How to apply this lesson: In the workplace, some employees are left guessing what game they are playing. They have but a confused idea of what winning means. These employees have little hope of putting in a good performance. Discuss with each and every employee why your business exists and what it is striving to achieve. Give them the big picture of what market you are in and what winning will look like in terms they can visualize.

Lesson 2: Know how to win the game.

In the game of basketball, every player also knows precisely how their actions contribute to winning the team's objective. Each basketball player plays an important role in getting the ball through the ring and in preventing the opposing team from doing likewise. The person playing power forward, for example, knows that they are there to catch rebounds on defense and to position themselves in the low post in offense.

How to apply this lesson: Some employees are just not sure what they are supposed to be doing. Conflicting demands and responsibilities without the appropriate authorities frustrate and confound. Clarify each employee's role in the quest for achieving the organization's objectives. Show each employee how their actions contribute to the overall business performance. Have a game plan that involves everyone in the business, showing each person precisely what they need to do to win.

Lesson 3: Know the rules of the game.

The game of basketball is governed by a set of rules. For example, a player is barred from deliberately kicking the ball and from charging another player. The rules are public, communicated to each player and applied impartially. Breaking a rule has consequences, such as the awarding of a free throw to an opposing player.

How to apply this lesson: Clarify what employees can do and what they cannot do as part of their job and what the repercussions are for transgressing the rules. Do not leave employees guessing about what is allowed and not allowed. Apply the rules consistently and equally to all employees.

Lesson 4: Know the score.

Every member of a basketball team knows the score at every point of play. The leader board is visible to all and shows team progress towards the objective in real time. Players do not need to wait until the end of the season or even the end of the game to know how they are doing.

How to apply this lesson: Feelings of management superiority and reasons of commercial sensitivity should not excuse leaving employees guessing about the state of their organization. Communicate business results clearly and often. Regularly discuss with employees progress towards achieving the objectives of the business.

Lesson 5: Know how I'm doing.

Each basketball team player receives accurate and timely feedback on their play. The team coach gives actionable advice during the game, at the end of each quarter and at the end of each game. With positive reinforcement and suggestions for improvement, each player can adjust their play and immediately see the results on the leader board.

How to apply this lesson: Employees unable to check up on how they are doing can't adjust their effort to their actual work outputs. Display department and team results in places where everyone can see them and review regularly with your team. Get managers to give helpful and timely performance feedback to each and every employee. Provide training and coaching that links directly to performance outcomes.

Lesson 6: Work as a team.

The game of basketball is a team game. A group of basketball players, each striving to keep the ball for as long as possible, or to score the most goals they possibly can, will only share in defeat. The most effective players appreciate how their position interacts with others on the team. If that player is met with a resounding offensive, they know to whom to pass the ball to keep it moving.

How to apply this lesson: Break down the barriers between departments and workgroups. Business is a team activity in which marketing, production, customer service, finance and engineering work collaboratively towards achieving common goals. Draw out the critical linkages between departments through mapping out cross-functional processes. Run inter-departmental meetings and share results and social events.

Lesson 7: Reward the team.

Basketball game organizers save the top award for the winning team. Recognition is also given to individuals for outstanding performance. However, it is the triumphant team that takes away the trophy, with the biggest smiles on team member's faces.

How to apply this lesson: Giving no recognition for a goal achieved is a recipe for bottoming employee motivation. Awarding only individual achievements will encourage maverick behavior and discourage teamwork. Set measurable team goals and reward the entire team when achieved. Make sure that individual rewards are not counterproductive to the team achieving their goals.

Why Should It Matter?

You may be wondering whether these seven lessons for top performance really apply to business. Imagine for a moment withdrawing the above seven factors from any sports team. It may be your son's Little League or your daughter's Junior Nationals.

What would happen if we sent our players onto the playing field with no idea about what game they are playing, how to win the game or its rules of play. Imagine not telling them about what position to take up and not responding to their quizzical looks. When they ask about the score tally, we would simply give them a blank stare. Come the end of the last quarter and the sound of the final bell, imagine simply packing them in the car without a word about the game.

If you think this is a recipe for disaster, why do we do exactly this day in, day out in many corporations throughout the business world. And at the same time, expecting to get great performance from our employees!

What if we are doing well in most of the seven lessons above, but fail in just one or two? What if we teach our sports players the objective of the game and its rules, we show them their position on the field and the score and we promise them a shiny trophy if they win. But we neglect to reinforce their good plays and show them how to do better when they fall over. Or we deny them coaching and starve them of feedback on how they are doing?

How will our players perform now? The answer is not rocket science. We wouldn't accept cutting out coaching and feedback as a good way to save on sporting costs and effort, and yet many organizations consider this kind of employee support as an optional extra that can be cut when times are tough.

Consider each of the other sporting lessons and how they impact player performance when neglected. If leaving it out can harm player performance in a team sport, think of what damage is being done to your business by ignoring it in your employee performance strategy. Find out which of the seven lessons are missing in your organization and get started today on making your business a top performer. Learn the lessons from team sports to create a champion organization.

Copyright © Leslie Allan

About the Author
Leslie Allan

Leslie Allan is Managing Director of Business Performance Pty Ltd; a management consulting firm specializing in people and process capability. He has been assisting organizations for over 20 years, contributing in various roles as project manager, consultant and trainer for organizations large and small. Mr. Allan is a prolific writer on business issues, with many journal and web articles to his credit. He is also the author of five books on employee capability, training and change management. Mr. Allan currently serves as Divisional Council Member for the Australian Institute of Training and Development and is a member of the Australian Institute of Management, the Graduate Management Association of Australia and the American Society for Quality. Leslie may be contacted by email at office@businessperform.com

Leslie Recommends
Managing Change in the Workplace

However your business and employees now need to change to make the most of Leslie's seven lessons, he can offer practical help. Check out Leslie's resource kit, Managing Change in the Workplace. Its tools, exercises, techniques and tips cover every aspect of managing change. Visit the Managing Change in the Workplace information portal to find out how to download the free Introductory Chapter and start using this practical change management guide and workbook today.

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