A series of quick celebratory dances by top players is what makes the current National Basketball League tick. Teams like the Golden State Warriors have some of the best basketball players in the world. Their players often sign a 2-year deal with the mindset that they'll come in -- strut their stuff -- grab a ring, and be on their way. Off to the next club to rinse and repeat.
Reid Hoffman, CEO at LinkedIn likes to think of employees as players on a sports team. He recoils at the idea of workmates being synonymous with family. While members of a family benefit from unconditional love-- parents can't fire kids. Netflix CEO, Reed Hastings advises all managers to ask, "Which of my people if they told me they were leaving for a similar job at a competitor, would I fight hard to keep at Netflix?" Like professional sports managers, the leaders at Netflix fight to keep star performers on their team.
For the sport of it
"The reason [celebrated sports] teams have been able to remain consistent winners despite high personnel turnover is that they have been able to combine a realistic view of the often-temporary nature of the employment relationship with a focus on shared goals and long-term personal relationships...teams win when their individual members trust each other enough to prioritize team success over individual glory," writes Hoffman along with Ben Casnocha and Chris Yeh in Harvard Business Review. In the business world, directors of companies can think and operate like this too. It may be an exploitative model, but it's wholly transparent and value led. Top performers bring their A-game to the company and are clear on their inputs and desired outputs.
The big challenge for companies seeking to move to sports-team-styled ways of working is really about letting go of the permanence of a team. "We think about teams as homes, and places where we've carved out an identity and where we've purposefully built relationships," explains Alexis Gonzales-Black, an organizational designer at IDEO. The magic in designing high performing teams rests in knowing how in a dynamic and ever-changing world, to get the right people working on the right things at the right time.
Leadership expert John Kotter explains that 50 years ago companies often tried to build teams with informal social activity. Executives would meet one another's families at christmas parties, over a round of golf, and the like. He warns that there are several drawbacks to this practice. Besides it being a very slow process (sometimes taking a decade or more), it creates groupthink. What we really want in the end, and what we want to safeguard in our teams, is diversity. Players on a team, whether in a boardroom or on the court, may be mediocre, superstars, or anything in between. But the team thrives not only because of star performers-- but because of interactions between disparate members. There really is no such thing as a balanced individual, only a balanced team. And this is why sometimes you need to pass the ball while at other times you gotta take the shot.
Teams also require elasticity, effectively forming and disbanding as required. For some organizations, the constantly shifting nature of work means that teams having accomplished their goals dissolve almost as soon as they've been created. Harvard professor Amy Edmondson explains that whether or not an organization thrives (or fails to thrive) depends primarily on how its teams perform. Thankfully, there are antidotes that can help stealth teams optimize performance. For example, Airbnb's cross-functional team got them into Cuba in just 10-weeks and Google has published the results of their year-long study on building the perfect team.
Playing in the Band
Team Design expert Alison Coward isn't fond of the analogies to either sports teams or families. If a comparison is to be made she prefers the jazz band. When a fellow band member would jump out of key -- as would occur from time to time -- Miles Davis would buck the norm. He'd play off it, forming something entirely novel and unexpected from what might otherwise be considered an error. It's this brilliant interplay between members, the fluidity of the ways in which they collaborate and work, that really is the mark of a high performing team.
Jazz band, sports team or family unit, the message is clear: trust, diversity and clear goals are non-negotiable for strong performance. The ability to move with ease and great communication can also help teams become elite. For the time being, I'm gonna hedge my bets and run with Miles Davis and the Warriors.