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Academy of Management

SPORTS LESSONS FOR THE WORKPLACE

January 1, 2002

For more information, contact: Benjamin Haimowitz, HHaimowitz@aol.com

As work organizations increasingly rely on teams rather than individuals to accomplish key tasks, managers face the question: What are the secrets to leading a truly outstanding team?

According to Nancy Katz, an assistant professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, an impressive line-up of sports figures is available and eager to provide answers.

"It's a cottage industry," says Katz, "hundreds of sports figures on the speaking circuit, publishing books and videos aimed at managers on their experiences with winning teams."

What can workplace managers learn from sports about leading a winning team? "Quite a bit," Katz says, "particularly about team motivation and structure, even though some people may grouse at the notion of seeking guidance about something serious from games."

Here is a sampling of worthwhile lessons from an article by Katz in the August 2001 issue of the Academy of Management Executive:

Integrate competition with cooperation. Fostering competition within a team sounds like a no-no. But some of the most successful coaches, like Anson Dorrance of the women's soccer team at the University of North Carolina, actively encourage teammates to compete with each other -- but only during practice. In Katz's own research on basketball teams, she found that coaches who tried to submerge players' natural inclination to compete with teammates, even during practice, were likely to find it happening during games, when it undermined the team. In sports and the corporate world alike, competition among teammates is healthy and desirable as long as it is bounded. The preeminent design firm IDEO, for example, openly fosters competition during brainstorming sessions where some of the company's most valuable ideas are generated. IDEO keeps the competition bounded by posting on the walls rules that govern all such sessions. Chief among them: don't criticize someone else's idea.

Engineer early wins. Whether a team's early efforts meet with success or failure can profoundly influence the team's future. In a study of Stanley Cup playoffs from 1974 to 1987, researchers led by William Gayton of the University of Southern Maine found that 72 percent of the teams that were ahead at the end of the first period won the match. Other things being equal, a workplace team that enjoys early success will aspire to more, expect more of itself, and achieve more. How to foster early success? Break a large task up into smaller tasks, with easier ones coming first. The early tasks should be short-term, so the success is experienced quickly and repeatedly. Then go broadcast that success.

Carve out time for practice. Don Shula, the winningest coach in NFL history, missed only one regular-season practice in 25 years with the Dolphins -- and only because he was undergoing surgery. In most work environments, though, teams are under so much pressure to produce results that they end up in performance mode all the time, with little, if any, time for practice. A wise manager will carve out such time. At the consulting company McKinsey, senior management recently began to encourage teams to spend at least one day a week in their home office instead of at their clients' facilities. While onsite, consultants need to be making an impression on the client; at the home office, in contrast, they can acknowledge their mistakes and limitations and develop ideas to address them.

Take advantage of halftime. Ever since Knute Rockne implored Notre Dame to win one for the Gipper, the halftime pep talk has been a sports cliché. In fact, halftime is a crucial piece of the game. Connie Gersick of UCLA, who has extensively studied workplace teams, found that there was one point -- and usually only one point -- when team members were open to questioning and revising their task strategies and methods. This typically occurred at the chronological midpoint of the team's work. A manager can take advantage of this halftime phenomenon in a few ways: by structuring a formal halftime assessment into the plan, by creating more deadlines to produce more halfway points, and, if the team's task is ongoing, by introducing artificial endpoints, such as end-of-quarter results.

Study the video. Professional sports teams routinely study game videos. Don Shula had his players watch videos over and over again, each time with a different group of teammates, because, Shula said, different groups would pick up on different subtleties. As Barry Staw of Berkeley's Haas School has shown, when a team succeeds at its task, team members tend to conclude that they worked together effectively; in fact, they might have succeeded despite the way they worked together, perhaps through the heroic efforts of just one teammate. A team manager should pose questions that will prompt team members to replay in their minds the team's figurative game video. The process need not be time-consuming or elaborate. The U.S. Marines have institutionalized a simple but potent practice called the "hot wash." At the end of a team's tasks, teammates always take a few minutes to address the questions: What did we do well? What did we do poorly?

So it makes sense for workplace managers to look to sports gurus for guidance and even sometimes to buy their books. Now a few caveats.

First, choose the right sport, says Katz. As researcher Bob Keidel has shown, baseball is a good model for sales teams, where each person works largely individually; football, with its top-down hierarchal control, is apt for an assembly-line manufacturing team; and basketball is a good model for a cross-functional task force, where information flows every which way and the dominant value is cooperation.

Second, don't confuse coaching with managing. One-on-one interaction with team members can greatly influence the success of sports teams but is not a strong predictor of success for workplace teams.

Third, contrary to sports' most-quoted aphorism, winning is neither everything nor the only thing for workplace managers. Anyone who thinks the workplace isn't ethically more complex than the playing field is headed for trouble.

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