How many times have you heard (or used) sports metaphors for various aspects of running your business: "goal posts," "early innings," "hail Mary," etc.?

Common as they are, such metaphors might be making you and your team less effective, according to a  recent article in The Atlantic.

Take, for example, the sports metaphor that business is a horse race against your competitors.  Although that sounds reasonable, statistically, it turns out that

"firms that approached their growth as a race against other companies had smaller profits than those that expanded more smoothly and steadily. Winning the race to expansion led some of the companies... to destruction."

In other words, thinking about business as a sport and your company as a professional sports team makes you less rather than more successful.

Here's why:

1. In sports, rules are predetermined.

In sports, everyone knows the rules, must play by the rules and breaking the rules has immediate negative consequences.

In sports, there is no "disruptive innovation." You can't suddenly decide you'll use a different ball, or field more players, or use robots to set up the perfect shot every time.

Think about your company as a sports team, and you'll tend to hire people who can win playing by the rules, even if those rules no longer apply to your industry.

2. In sports, there is always a winner.

In sports, the season competition eventually identifies the winning team. It's impossible to have two, three, or ten winning teams. If you don't win the championship, you're a loser.

Business isn't at all like that. Is "winning" having the biggest market share? The most loyal customers? The most profit? The best employees?  The most positive social impact?

Treating your company and team as if it must win (and everyone else lose) creates the same problems as the "warfare" metaphor: a lack of flexibility that could prove fatal to your future.

3. In sports, time is precisely limited.

In league competition, there are a set number of games which are played for a set number of hours. While a game may go into overtime or extra innings, when the season is over, it's over.

In business, elapsed time is just an element of planning. Release a product too soon and it could fail (bugs) or flop (ahead of its time). Release it too late and there may not be as much demand.

Creating a successful product requires balancing elapsed time against many other elements; sometimes it makes sense to spend the extra time to get it right rather than rush to meet an arbitrary deadline.

4. Sports favors star performers.

Winning sports teams have sport stars.  The recent NBA championship, for example, was almost as much about the competition between LeBron James and Steven Curry as it was between their respective teams.

In business, however, "star performers" are often disruptive. Star salespeople, for example, often use their star status to drain resources that might make others more successful.

Business run better when managers take time to build teams of people who work together well without any single person hogging the limelight. 

5. In sports, wins create more wins.

Professional sports are full of legendary teams that win championships year-after-year. That's why it's so exciting when an underdog (like Cleveland) comes up from behind and beats the favored team.

In business, however, the opposite is often the case.  Companies with a history of winning are often vulnerable to unexpected competition when the rules inevitably change.

In business, a "tradition of success" creates momentum that makes it almost impossible to pivot. Often, it's necessary to eject most of the managers and "stars" before meaningful change is possible.

6. In sports, competition is everything.

A sports must be competitive; otherwise it's not a sport. As a result, winning means beating the competition, which means being obsessed with the competition's strengths and weaknesses.

Companies who are obsessed with beating their competitors are often clueless about their customers, who frankly don't give a flying donut about which team wins.

In business, relationships are everything, specifically your relationships with your customers and partners. And that's a concept that doesn't really fit very well into the entire sports milieu.

Published on: Jun 20, 2016
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.