Let’s Bring Baseball to Business
When I look at how many American businesses use teams, I’m reminded of a quote from Peter Senge, “Today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions.” The current flurry of creating teams to deal with nearly every situation has been a somewhat ineffective response to the demands to do more with less, to synergize, to empower employees, and several other well intentioned, platitude-intense initiatives. People don’t feel involve – put them on a team. Got a lot of work to do in a short time – create a team. Have to solve a problem no one wants to deal with – assign it to a team. Whatever the issue, many organizations have chosen to adopt the team model as the means to address it.
Teams can be an effective, efficient structure for achieving spectacular results. They can be bastions of creativity and commitment, and even foster zeal. However, they can also be places where process overwhelms outcomes, little constructive work is done in the name of maintaining harmony, everyone points to everyone else as the reason the project missed the deadline, and other unproductive results that are too often associated with ineffective team work.
One of my greatest concerns about the way many organizations use teams is the assumption that all teams must look and act alike. We expect all teams to comply with the “All for one, one for all” philosophy so gallantly exclaimed by some aging ex-military lads, swishing their swords in the air while wearing feathers in their hats – a striking, but not too current fashion.
In most organizational settings, a team means a group of people who meet regularly, generate prodigious amounts of documents, and where all members equally share the burden of their task. The meetings may be efficient, or not, energizing or draining, but meetings are a stalwart of the team process.
The documents teams produce can be magnificent, cogent reports that serve the organization well, or they can be records of who was there, who said what, what they did or didn’t do, and something that no one ever looks at again. Good doorstops, significant contributions to the recycling basket, but not really serving to move the organization forward.
Most business teams try to share the work evenly so that everyone has their “fair” share. Conscientious team members eagerly volunteer to take on tasks so that they “contribute.” Those who don’t step up are often given the evil eye or assigned tasks so that everyone “does something,” all too often without regard to the individual’s skills or capacity to do the assigned tasks.
Businesses seem to ignore that teams in another venue – sports, can follow completely different patterns. Let’s look at golf, baseball and volleyball as examples. We don’t expect that just because they are all called teams that they will follow the same processes or be structured in a similar fashion.
When a golf team is formed there is no attempt to change the very individualized nature of golf to make everyone behave in the same way. In fact, a golf team doesn’t even have to play together. Usually, being a golf team means that the scores of individuals will be added together. They may all wear the same colored shirts, share tips about the course, celebrate or commiserate depending on results, but when actually golfing, they operate solo.
Let’s examine the great American past time – baseball. Unlike golf, baseball team members need to be in the same place, the ballpark, for the game to be played. But unlike the “everyone at every meeting” model that we follow in most business settings, baseball allows for some players to be more involved, some less, as the games unfolds.
The pitcher and the catcher certainly have a lot more interaction than the right fielder and second baseman, but when necessary, the right fielder and second baseman better do what is needed to get the job done.
Baseball also promotes individual specialization and an unequal division of labor. The designated hitter may be important, but not involved very often. So unlike the practice of business teams, where everyone is expected to show up for every meeting and stay there for the full nine innings, baseball allows for rotation of pitchers and calls for some people to sit on the bench while other folks strut their stuff. And even though the team record reflects the efforts of all the team members, it is pretty easy to identify individual accomplishments and contributions. Frequently organizational teams try to encourage comradeship, by stressing team results and don’t give recognition to individual contributions.
Let’s explore volleyball as the third example of a team. Volleyball calls for each team member to be able to step up to the task and stay involved in what is going on at all times, just in case the ball comes their way. Volleyball players quickly switch from a being a “server” to a “setter” to the high arching titan who gets “the kill.”
In my observation, most organizations set up teams as if they were playing volleyball, when in reality they need the baseball model. Some organizational teams logically follow the baseball team structure. For example, a surgery team parallels baseball in that the anesthesiologist sticks to keeping the patient asleep while the surgeon does the cutting and the nurse keeps track of the sponges. They all have to work together, but the work is divided according to the special talents of everyone involved. A product development team could also follow this pattern. The R & D staff pool their creative juices to develop the product and only bring in those responsible for assembling or marketing the product as they are needed. There is no need for everyone at every meeting.
Too often, in an attempt to equalize the workload and treat everyone fairly, we don’t maximize the skills, experience, interests or abilities of the individuals on the team. Instead of letting those with the most knowledge and experience make decisions that require this knowledge and experience, we take a vote or build consensus so that everyone is on board, whereas the ones with the necessary knowledge and experience would make a better decision.
Baseball also serves as a model for how to document team activities. I doubt that there is another human activity that produces more statistics and documents than baseball, perhaps the IRS, but it would be a close race. Every player who has ever played has a “card” for every year. Every pitch, and what happened at every bat is recorded somewhere, but baseball also communicates the results in a succinct summary – Twins Win – or not. The lesson here is that for some purposes every detail is important, for others, just the result is what is critical. Baseball results are presented in different ways depending on the needs and wants of the different audiences. The usual manner of communicating about organizational teams is to provide any and all interested parties with summaries of activities, minutes of meetings, action plans, accomplishments, and on and on. Organizational teams would be wise to follow the pattern of baseball and give the audience only what they need.
I whole-heartedly endorse using teams for a variety of purposes. I believe that effective teams can accomplish more than individuals working alone and that they can provide rewarding and enriching experiences for their members. However, when deciding to create a team, decide first what the team is supposed to accomplish. What is it about the reason for forming the team that calls for a group of people to work together? Once that purpose has been delineated, then decide the team structure and process. Think about the sports team models and decide if you are playing golf, baseball or volleyball and create your team accordingly.
Don’t immediately assume that everyone on the team has to attend every minute of every meeting, or that if there are 10 people on the team every person’s effort should equal 10% of the work done by the team. Assess the skills, knowledge, interests and talents of the members of the team and determine how these can be used to accomplish the team’s goal in the most effective matter. In the final analysis, pick the right team model and structure your team accordingly. You’ll raise your batting average in no time!
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