Why do sporting teams make A great MAnagement example?

It is a simple, but powerful reason why sporting teams make a great management example. It is because the team’s manager, coach, assistant coaches cannot play!

By not being able to play, the focus intrinsically shifts to making the team and its players the best they can be, both individually and collectively.

Sporting teams also have the advantage that their performance measurements are clearly aligned to the outcome of their mission. That is, did they win or lose. Not how well did they play, how many completed passes, shots on goals, yards gained, tackles, first serves, clean winners, aces, stolen bases, double plays, were achieved.

In sport the question is, did we win or lose?

This FAQ started from a coffee conversation with a friend Robert Hart, who sent me an email afterwards adding to our discussion;

The other reason an organisation is like a sports team is that you must have a range of talents and individuals to be successful. If everyone is the same on the team - which includes the way they think, the team fails.

You need people who think like forwards, those who think like backs and so on. The only thing they all need to agree on is that they want to win and that their game plan (strategy) is the best.”

Hart is pointing out that a necessary leadership understanding is that we are All Different, and All Needed to make up a balanced team with everyone doing their role. That includes management! For more details on organization structure please see, “What is a Perfect Organization?

We can easily think of the processes that occur inside a sports organization;

  • Setting out the team's mission and goal, such as to win and become world, league, team champions in the next five years.
  • Defining the nested sub-missions of each section of the team, offense, defense, and the individual players
  • Strategy to achieve the team's goals at multiple levels;
    • player recruitment and development, do we have the right range of skills and capabilties
    • coaching capability,
    • facilities; stadiums, gyms, nutrition,
    • physical and mental health management,
    • game plans, teamwork, drills, plays
  • Knowledge of the competition
  • Training, education, skills and fitness
  • After game reviews, play by play breakdowns
  • Measurements, and even more measurements, all focused on achieving the team outcome

And the list goes on.

As discussed in the FAQ, “What does Management do?” there are people planning for the next match coming up, there are people looking across the entire season and the next one, and there is senior management gazing further into the future deciding on long term sponsorships, capital investments and perhaps even moving to a new location.

When we compare this list to our own organization, how do we compare?

When processes don’t go according to plan, what does management do? Do they look for the underlying causes and provide training drills to improve the team’s performance? Or do they run out onto the field and make the play themselves?

Not being able to play, that is, do their employee’s work for them, is a great way to make management do what they need to do. To operate at the level, they need to operate at, to support their teams. When their hands are tied behind their back the only option for them is to use their leadership capabilities and management processes that support their people and not do the work for them.

It is at this point we hope we didn’t hire the wrong leaders. The great sales person who becomes the worst sales manager. The brilliant brain surgeon, who hates being the head of medical staff. Or the strong confident, “I have the answer”, penguin who acts before understanding. (To understand the penguin reference please read, “Why do we hire the wrong leaders?”)

The other advantage sporting teams have, although we may not think it is, is transparency. Their activities are carried out in front of everyone. Often with countless television cameras zooming in on every detail. Not to mention the oversight committees made up of commentators, journalists, ex-players and a sea of supporters. In this environment being able to articulate your mission, goals and strategy is very important. When the coach is interviewed at the end of the game, win or lose, they better be able to explain what happened, why it happened and what they are going to do to build further success. If they come across wishy-washy the feedback is swift.

But even with all these natural forces shaping sporting teams towards a Perfect Organization, we see behavior that shows we may not have the right leader in place.

Michael Lewis, in his book Moneyball, quotes the statistician Peter Palmer who points out that not every team manager will take risks;

"Managers tend to pick a strategy that is least likely to fail rather than pick a strategy that is most efficient", said Palmer. "The pain of looking bad is worse than the gain of making the best move"

It is easy to understand that given the tremendous amount of pressure a coach is under, why they would take the conservative, “least likely to fail” option. It takes strong leadership to take a risk, what is often labelled in the corporate would as “innovation”.

Ian Ayres in his book, Super Crunchers, shows that in NFL Football the statistics are in favor of going for a fourth down in certain situations. However, because the expected, and therefore the least likely to be criticized option is to punt the ball, that is what the team does.

As we asked earlier, how does this compare to how we operate and measure our own organization? How well do we recruit, train, measure our employees? Do we have a strategy, work drills and outcome based measurements?

Or do we look at the scoreboard at the end of each quarter and try and work out what we are going to say to Wall Street?

Michael Lewis raises this point when he observes the unasked question from the work of Bill James, a contemporary of Peter Palmers;

"There was but one question he [Bill James] left unasked, and it vibrated between his lines: if gross miscalculations of a person's value could occur on a baseball field, before a live audience of thirty thousand, and a television audience of millions more, what did that say about the measurement of performance in other lines of work? If professional baseball players could be over - or under - valued, who couldn't? Bad as they may have been, the statistics used to evaluate baseball players were probably for more accurate than anything used to measure the value of people who didn't play baseball for a living."

As Robert Hart observed at the start of this FAQ, we need different types of players, playing their positions, in both sporting teams and organizations. This includes managers playing their positions and not running onto the field to take over from their employees.

The fact that managers in sporting teams can’t play, makes them operate along the lines of A Perfect Organization.

To apply this to organizations, that is to stop managers trying to play, we could determine which decisions have to be made by the employees and each layer of management. (This should be based on Elliot Jaques Stratified Systems Theory.)  We then ban any higher levels making the decisions for their teams. These managers have to train, educate, measure and provide feedback on the decisions that the employees make, but they can’t actually make the decision.

Imagine the stress that this would cause some managers. But this would be an interesting way to create change in an organization.