Should Businesses Act More Like Sports Teams?

A baseball player makes a home run.

Should businesses act like sports teams, and can this approach work for all types of business models? Not everyone agrees.

There are many types of business models out there and many models for business structures. Oftentimes, established organizations are told to act like startups, and organizations that haven't traditionally been involved in technology are told to think of themselves as software firms. But when it comes to improving organizational performance, businesses should also draw inspiration from sports teams.

But many businesses don't. While business Ñ like sports Ñ involves competition, the comparison often stops there. Rather than embrace a team spirit, many organizations are based on a spirit of individual achievement that cultivates superstars instead of team players.

The Top 3 Benefits of Thinking Like a Sports Team

Sports teams of course are often homes to superstars as well. But generally, a well-coached team with average players can beat poorly coached teams that house superstars. Like sports teams, businesses can foster an environment in which everyone is committed and leaders know how to get the most out of the existing talent. There are other benefits as well, including the following three.

1. A Growth Mindset

Well-coached teams look at failures and setbacks as an opportunity to learn and grow. Just as a coach might go over video of a previous game to spot preventable errors, a well-run business can look for areas to improve sales, marketing and manufacturing, among other aspects of the business. This is the sort of mindset needed to spark innovation. The opposite of a growth mindset Ñ the fixed mindset Ñ resists challenges and criticism.

2. A Focus on Cumulative Strengths

Good coaches recognize that bench warmers have strengths that can be cultivated and can help support star players. In the business world, the differences are more about personalities, cognition and creativity than physical acumen. Smart organizations with all types of business models take pains to figure out what the differences are (sometimes using personality tests like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) and then figure out the best way to integrate them into the team.

3. Process, not Results

Some of the best performing teams got there by following a rigid process. As Ryan Holiday wrote in his book "The Obstacle is the Way," Nick Saban, the famous coach of college teams at Louisiana State University and the University of Alabama, trained his players not to worry about the overall complexity of the game, but merely to focus on their roles and doing them as well as possible. This, rather than results, was the main focus. As author Charles Duhigg notes in "The Power of Habit," businessman Paul H. O'Neill also focused on process at Alcoa. While many questioned O'Neill's relentless focus on safety procedures, he managed to change the organizational culture by attacking one bad habit. That led the business to record profits in one year.

The Challenge of This Approach

One of the main differences between a business and a sports team is that the latter is usually expected to have a culture of practice, improvement and teamwork. Businesses, meanwhile, can have that type of culture too, but there will inevitably be a cadre of employees who are less motivated and who will resist thinking of themselves as being part of a team.

Some business leaders have taken umbrage of the use of sports as a metaphor. Harvard Business Review (HBR) notes that, unlike sports, business is not a zero-sum game. There's no regular season, but an endless slog in which the goal is to delight consumers, not crush the competition. Moreover, players on sports teams don't stick around for decades like business executives can, at least in theory. HBR suggests a better metaphor for a business is that of a community.

Who is right? Likely there's no right answer, but savvy business owners should certainly consider taking elements of sports success and adapting them to their businesses. Or they might want to look to yet another metaphor Ñ the scientist Ñ and experiment with different approaches until they hit upon one that works.

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