With no disrespect meant to soccer and hockey, there are three major sports in the United States. Each sport has its own unique characteristics and fan base. Each player has different skill sets and styles. The way that baseball, football, and basketball teams work together are great examples of how teams in a corporate workplace work together.
Baseball is an amazing sport of many little 1 on 1 battles. Each time a batter walks to home plate, they are entering a contest of batter versus pitcher. Mano y mano; hand to hand, one against one. Either the batter wins the contest and reaches base, or the pitcher wins the battle and the batter returns to the dugout to prepare for his next at-bat.
Baseball is a team of individuals. While camaraderie is the basis for many teams, baseball players tend to be independent. Since baseball is centered around this batter versus the pitcher model, the game itself tends to be very individualistic. The players take batting practice one on one with a coach. They take fielding practice one on one with a coach. The players are each independently trying to improve themselves in order to make the team better.
When playing in the field, each player is assigned to a region of the field to play defense in. The players then depend on each other to cover the appropriate assignments and tend to stay in their own areas.
This individualism is something that a lot of business teams also follow in their approach to working together. In a project there are times when the entire team understands what needs to be done and how to get through it. This might be something that the team has done before, or that the team has the expertise to accomplish without a lot of group interaction. Assignments to the team are made, all the team members go their separate ways and meet back together once all of the assignments are complete. This is the model most used by students taking a class where group work is required. The team meets, gives out tasks, then everyone comes back together to report success of their own part of the assignment. There is little collaboration during the execution of the project, and the team depends on each other to complete the assigned tasks, as there is no back up for any of the given items.
Baseball is a great game of individual battles between the pitcher and the batter. Baseball teams are teams of individuals taking individual assignments, and the completion of those individual assignments constitutes success for the whole.
American football is a violent sport of strength, agility, and endurance. Within a football game there are many small competitions played out on the field: wide receivers vs. corner backs and safeties, offensive line vs. defensive line, running backs and tight ends vs. linebackers. The difference between the battles in football and baseball are that these battles are typically position vs. position instead of one on one. There are few situations in football where a single person is matched up against a single person.
In football, each position works together to form a single harmonious unit. Each position trains together, studies film together and practices together. While there are instances where the team works together outside of a game, typically each position works in small units to help develop their skills and learn their responsibilities within the whole.
This type of team also exists in the business world. These are the cross-functional teams where each discipline works on their own portion of the project, but does not concern itself with the other functions of the team. An example of this is a software development team. In the software development process, the business analysts work with the user community to determine what needs to be built, i.e. the requirements. Then once the requirements are complete, they hand those off to the development team to design and develop the application. Once the development is complete, the developers hand the project off to the quality assurance personnel to validate the software works to the specifications in the requirements. Finally, the technical writers write up the training documentation and work with the business analysts to roll out the software to the user community. Each of these disciplines is important to the team, but each performs a distinct individual component of the whole.
This type of team can work well when the project management methodology is very lock-step or when the disciplines on the team are very specialized, like in the case of a airline flight. Remember that it is a team of people that help make sure that your flight leaves the airport fueled and mechanically ready to go, that it has those bags of peanuts on board, that the flight attendants are prepared, and that the pilots are all ready to fly the plane. All of these people are required to make sure that the “project” of your flight to Dallas is successful, but they do not necessarily work as one single unit. It is more like a few different units, each working in their disciplines to complete the work of the whole.
The friction that can occur between disciplines is one of the primary drawbacks of this model. In the software development example, if the requirements are not complete and the business analyst sends the documentation “over the wall” to the development team, the development team can become resentful and this impacts morale. The fact that the business analyst was being pressured by upper management to just get the development team started on something, no matter how bad, may not be known by the development team, since they are working in their discipline silos.
This type of team methodology also lends itself to cliques within the team structure. Cross-functional teams are designed to be more inclusive and assist the company in better offering their products. Teams organized like a football team create artificial silos of knowledge and work and can sometimes work against the leadership’s desires.
Basketball is a sport that is designed to test the dexterity, body control, and mental endurance. There are many nuances to the game. This game is primarily played 5 on 5 with each player taking an important part in the competition. Basketball is different than the other sports as it is played much more fluidly than the others. The players switch off guarding the members of the other team as the situation requires. Different players take shots, depending on the activities of the other team and who has the “hot hand.” One night a player may be asked to score a lot of points in order to win the game, but the next night that same player may be asked to guard the other team’s best player and not score at all.
On basketball teams, the entire team practices together. While there may be practice regimens that are specifically tailored to individuals, for the most part the team runs drills and practices as a whole. Great basketball players are measured on “how much better this player makes the other players around him better.” This is not something typically used to measure athletes in the other sports (except maybe the quarterback in football).
This type of cross-functional team is one where every team member is willing to do whatever role is required to complete the project. This is a team that has an amoeba-like quality that allows it to change and shift a little as required. For example, if you have a catering business, typically one team member is the baker, one the dinner chef, and other staff members handle the setup, delivery, and service. There will be times, however, when some of the setup team does not show up and the baker needs to step in and help. In a baseball team situation, the baker might not even know that there is an issue. In a football model, the other setup staff would handle it the best that they could without involving the baker.
The basketball model lends itself well to those small quick-hit teams that can handle any situation, or that the disciplines between the team members is relatively transferable. I would not want the grounds crew flying the plane, but I am okay with a business analyst doing quality assurance.
The basketball model also lends itself well to teams that have a need of mentoring less-experienced team members. The senior staff members can take on whatever role is required to help make sure that the junior team members can get the training and experience that they need to succeed on the team.
So, whether your team is remote and disparate, whether your team is made up of a bunch of small specialized independent team, or whether the team members have some transferable skills, there is a model in American sports that can help you take the team’s effectiveness to the next level.