Wednesday, December 17, 2008 by Dave Blum
It occurs to me that teamwork isn’t taught sufficiently in our school system. From an early age onward through college, we are mostly on our own, working solo to earn good grades and academic honors — often in direct competition with our classmates.  During these crucial “development years”, about the only place any of us ever experience teams and teamwork is as members of sports clubs.  I’d like to contend that, in terms of preparing us for the work world, school sports teams are not the best model for learning adult business-team skills — for the following three reasons:

1) School sports teams tend to be dictatorships:  Although not every coach is an extreme disciplinarian like a Bobby Knight or a Bill Parcells, most coaches in the school system do tend to wield broad authority on their teams. They make all the decisions, on and off the field; they decide who plays and who doesn’t.  Disagreeing with the coach is often viewed as insubordination and grounds for benching or discipline.  Conversely, in business the best teams see each other as equals; they argue; they debate.  The team leader only makes a final decision after all views have been expressed, often passionately.

2) Winning is the chief measurement of success:  In American sports in particular, you either win or you fail.  Even a tie (common in soccer and hockey around the world) is mostly considered a negative result here in the States.  As Vince Lombardi famously said, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”  If you win the game, you’ve had a successful result; anything else is a failure.  Which of course means that everytime you play a match, either you or your opponent must fail.  In business, however, there is more nuance to the term “success”.  If you finish a project successfully and on time, that’s a success.  If you roll out a product that makes a greater profit than ever before, that’s a success.  If you are #2 in your industry, then undoubtedly you’re still making a lot of money.  You do not need to be #1 to be a success…as long as you’re profitable in the eyes of your stakeholders.

3) Your opponent is your enemy:  There’s not a lot of alliance building on sports teams.  It’s generally your team against the “enemy” in a one-to-one struggle.  The more you and your team can rally around clobbering the “bad guys”, the better you seem to do.  Business teams, by contrast, are rarely so isolated, with one nefarious enemy to defeat.  Rather, to succeed they must generally allign themselves both with management as well as with other teams, departments and divisions.  As John Donne might have said, “No [team] is an island.”  Partnering is essential.

During all our Dr. Clue team building exercises, whether it’s solving a set of treasure hunt clues or completing a scavenger hunt list, we emphasize these core team values:

  • teams are collaborative entities, not dictatorships
  • winning and losing isn’t as important as productivity and the best practices you discover
  • cross-team collaboration is as vital as intra-team cooperation

What are your thoughts on sports teams, business teams and the role of corporate team building activities?

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