Screaming Circuits: Use sports to motivate your team? Think again - for The Engineer Entrepreneur

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Use sports to motivate your team? Think again - for The Engineer Entrepreneur

Sports metaphors are incredibly common in the world of business motivation. Probably even more common than military metaphors. We raise the bar, huddle, put on a full court press, try for the home run, and we use the winning sports team as a template for the winning management team.

At first glance, that makes sense. Team sports require, well, teamwork, as does business. A sports team that plays well together is much stronger than a simple sum of the individuals. That principle holds true in a corporate environment too. A team working well together is more multiplicative than additive. With that being the case, how can I say that sports metaphors are bad news? It comes down to the origin of purpose. It's about why every one is there; what their foundational motivation is.

Team on the field 1978

Success in team sports require much of the same recipe as does success in business. You need a common purpose. You need an understanding of what each teammate needs. You don’t necessarily need deep knowledge of everyone’s positions and jobs, but you need to know enough to help and understand all of them. Everyone has a place and must fill that place, and none of those places stand alone.

Everyone on a winning sports team is there for one purpose: to end the game with a higher score than the other team. Every member of the great team lives that purpose, and has for most of their life. Many of them have been handling the ball or bat since before they started school. Some as soon as they could sit up as a baby and reach out for the brightly colored round thing coming at them. By the time they reached high school, college, or the pros, they have all been living the same dream for a substantial portion of their life.

By the time a soccer player reaches high school, the serious ones are all thinking about playing college ball, perhaps even with a scholarship. In college, it’s the Olympics, the world cup, and a coveted spot on a pro team. They are all after that exact same goal, and have been since their formative years.

Those new freshman team members have all of the ingredients needed to form a winning team. A great coach can work with those ingredients because all of the individuals come into the team with the same goal. They all live, breath, eat, and sleep that goal. All they need is to have it tied together.

And right there, my friend, is where the metaphor falls flat in the business world. First, if you pick the wrong sport to anchor your story, someone’s going to think: “that’s not a real sport. My sport is the real sport.” Someone else, the clumsy nerd, is going to think: “great more glorification of the hot shot popular kids that made my life miserable back then.”

Your company doesn’t have a homogenous-thinking group of people that have held the same dream since potty training. Great sports teams do. You don’t have the same raw material. What you have is just about the opposite of what a sports coach has to work with. Different ingredients require a different formula. Look at what you’ve got:

  • At the age of six, Aaaa was dreaming of walking on the moon. But then, we stopped going to to moon, so they found a different career.
  • Bbbb mostly played in the mud a lot and drove their parents nuts with all of the laundry and ruined church clothes. Yet, in their head, they were creating giant hydroelectric dams and other massive public works.
  • Cccc wanted to be a great leader of soldiers, protecting the weak and saving the world for democracy.
  • Dddd wanted to be the next Joe Montana and win the Superbowl.
  • Eeee was lost and already starting to dabble in what would become a decade centered around creative ways to abuse drugs and alcohol.
  • Ffff couldn’t think about much more than a future family with happy spouse and kids, cars, a house, and relaxing vacations.
  • At five, Gggg was trading little used toys for slightly better ones with neighbor kids. Then came lemonade stands, paper routes and odd jobs up and down the street. Never any doubt that this one would grow up to be an entrepreneur.
  • Hhhh ran track, played basketball and baseball throughout most of K-12, settling on track in college. After not quite making the Olympic team, they became a fighter pilot and finally ended up in sales because the airlines weren’t hiring at the right time.
  • Iiii just followed the formula - grade school, middle school, high school, college, an MBA, and some lifeless job.

It’s quite unlikely that any of your management team was dreaming about middleware software as a service when they were five.

Unless you’re in one of the few overtly world-changing companies, it’s quite unlikely that even half of your management team is really passionate about the products or services that the company produces and delivers.

They may be passionate about creating a great user experience, but that can be done just about anywhere, as long as there’s enough money in the budget. They may be driven by quality, but that drive can be fulfilled in a lot of different companies.

No. You don’t have that common fundamental purpose so important to the sports team as a starting point. You don’t have a group of people that are driven by the same thing, and you can’t treat them as if they do. You’ve got to find and or build a different purpose, and you’ve got to understand that you may always have a few team members that aren’t motivated by what you really need them to be motivated by.

It’s easy to say that such people should just leave and go elsewhere. Ideally they will, and you’ll replace them with better fits. But, you can’t depend on it. It’s not practical to expect everyone that isn’t spot on with your purpose to quit or be fired. The real world doesn’t work that way.

You need to create a team building strategy that accommodates some crosses of purpose and some unproductive behavior. If your team building strategy requires that everyone come around and see and live by the common vision, it will very likely not live up to your goals.

You’ve got to find commonality in what drives every member of your team. And the purpose you derive from that needs to be robust enough to deal with some level of indifference. It can’t be dependent upon 100% buy-in. Don't fool yourself into thinking you've got it that easy.

Duane Benson
Curling. Now that's the real sport

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