What sport is your team playing?

In the United States leaders like to make analogies to sports, and compare their teams to teams engaged in sports.  In some ways the basic competitive aspects of sports suggest that they may not be the best model for thinking about teams yet there are great lessons to be learned from sports when considering team effectiveness.

One question I use when assessing teams is to ask them and their leaders what sport they are playing?  What is a team they would compare themselves too?  A common definition of any team sport and any team is two or more workers or players moving toward a common goal.  Easy right?   But relying on the team analogy are your developers working as if they are an Olympic swimming team or a basketball team?  With a few exceptions like relays the Olympic team is a collection of swimmers pursuing individual goals whose combined results are also measured.  But for most of those swimmers their individual results are their focus.  They can succeed even if no one else on the team does.  Basketball, on the other hand was summed up by Bill Russell when he said “The most important measure of how good a game I played was how much better I’d made my teammates play”.

I was recently working with a team that was best summed up as a swim team.  A number of competent developers with deep specialization were effectively maintaining and enhancing their product.  However, there was very little cross developer collaboration.  Items were passed around by email, errors were frequently introduced at the boundaries between individual responsibilities.  No one held each other responsible nor took extra effort to make the team succeed, even though they were all working hard within their individual task boundaries.

The organization was facing a major technology redevelopment effort and we knew we had to move the group to a more effective team model if they were going to be able to deliver.  We took a number of steps to create a collaborative team including adding some resources, changing responsibilities, individual coaching and modified incentives.  The team would have benefited from a formal program of team development such as the Five Behaviors of Cohesive Teams.

If leaders are fond of sports analogies, they should make sure that their idea of the team sport their team is playing is the same as the one the team members have.  Too often they aren’t the same.  Sitting in the same room and working on the same system doesn’t make a group of a developers a team.