Seven Practices of Successful Teams in Sport and Business

By Leslie Allan


Sports teams play hard to win, and so does your business. The desire to take a victory lap, however, isn’t the only similarity. Business owners and sports teams watch rivals closely, strategize at every turn and work together to reach the final goal, whether it’s the trophy, a customer win or the successful deployment of a long-running project.

In business, we often look at our competitors to better understand what we’re doing right and wrong. I believe there’s similar value in looking outside the business world for examples. As a basketball fan, I often look at teams and how they succeed or fail. Not surprisingly, the best teams engage in certain practices that make them winners. Apply these practices to your business and you can come out on top, too.

Practice Point No. 1: Remember the Name of the Game
Basketball players who strive for home runs or touchdowns don’t get far. Their goal is to land the ball in the basket at either side of the court. Knowing what game you’re playing is the obvious first step to scoring more points than the other team and eventually winning the game.

Business Application:A surprising number of employees have no idea what game they’re playing and only a foggy notion of what it means to win. As they aim for home runs on the hardwood, their performance will be unsatisfactory, and their chance of success will be nil. As the coach of your business, discuss with every player/employee the game you’re in and define what success is. The big picture might be obvious to you, but it’s not necessarily clear to them.

Practice Point No. 2: Understand Your Position
A power forward knows he’s in the game to catch rebounds. A point guard knows he’s the team’s best handler and passer. A shooting guard knows his job is to get the ball in the hoop. Every basketball player knows his position and his role in both achieving success and preventing the opposing team from scoring.

Business Application:Make sure your employees understand their position and how they’re expected to contribute to the team’s overall success. Too often, employees are distracted by conflicting demands and confused by responsibilities that they don’t understand. In other words, they’re either not sure how their job fits into the big picture or what they’re supposed to be doing in the first place. As a business owner, you need to make their roles clear. Just like a sports coach, come up with a game plan. Then discuss with each employee how their responsibilities fit into the ultimate performance and success of the business.

Practice Point No. 3: Understand the Rules of the Game
The rules of basketball are known to all the players on the court and on the bench. They not only know how to play offense and defense but also the penalties for infractions. If a player violates a rule, the other team gets free throws. If there’s a serious violation, players may be expelled from the game or fined by the league. The rules are not a secret, and they’re applied across the board by impartial referees.

Business Application:Don’t keep your players in the dark. Establish and communicate ground rules for their jobs and your business. Employees shouldn’t be left to guess about what’s allowed and not allowed once they’re in the office. And don’t forget to lay out the consequences of not following the rules. Make sure your employee manual specifies the consequences of breaking certain rules, especially those that can trigger termination. Finally, be a fair referee. Apply the rules and the penalties fairly to all employees.

Practice Point No. 4: Keep Score
At any given moment of the game, players know the score. The scoreboard updates with every basket, and the clock ticks toward the end of the game. There’s no need to wait until the end of the game or the end of the season to figure out how the team is performing.

Business Application:Don’t keep your team guessing about whether their performance is sufficient. Update them frequently and regularly on the status of the business. Your communications should cheer not only progress but victory itself. Too often, business owners use management superiority and commercial sensitivity as excuses for not communicating with employees. Get over it. Just imagine a basketball team where players had no idea whether their team is winning or losing.

Practice Point No. 5: Real-Time Evaluation
Everyone on the basketball court and sitting on the bench knows his status. Coaches (not to mention fans) provide feedback after every play. The flow of actionable advice is constant during the game. Even more feedback is given after each game and at the end of every season, regardless of the outcome. Everyone has an opportunity to learn, shift gears and improve performance before it is too late. Nothing is held back.

Business Application:Too often, employees get no feedback until there’s a problem. Don’t hold back and make sure your managers do the same. For the group, post department and team results so that everyone can see their progress. Build training and coaching that connects to desired performance and outcomes. On an individual level, you and your managers must meet regularly and frequently with every employee to discuss performance. Make sure the bulk of the feedback is in writing – just as a basketball player’s performance lands in the sport section of a newspaper.

Practice Point No. 6: Focus on Teamwork
A single player does not make a basketball team. Players can only win if they work together as a team. As a group, they have a shared goal. They have positions that interact and enable individuals and the team to achieve success. Finally, every player understands his role among the larger group. They know when to dribble the ball down the court or pass it to another player who can take the shot.

Business Application:For your business to be successful, employees must work as a team. All departments and employees must know how they are supposed to interact with each other to achieve common goals and overall success. As the business owner and head coach, you have to map out the interactions between departments and between employees. Hold meetings that involve multiple departments, focusing on cross-functional processes. Share results good and bad with everyone. And don’t forget to host social events that mix employees and departments from across your organization.

Practice Point No. 7: Rewards
After a game, there’s a party in every winning team’s locker room. After the championship, the winning team gets a trophy and a ring. Individual performance isn’t left out: The most valuable player also gets special recognition.

Business Application:Too often, victories are greeted with silence in business. This is a recipe for ensuring bad performance and poor employee morale. A focus on individual achievement often results in a team of mavericks who are looking out only for themselves. At the same time, if you reward only the team, individuals who were key to the victory may feel underappreciated. The solution here is to make sure your rewards cover all the bases. First, set measurable goals for teams and individuals. Second, make noise when those goals are met or exceeded. Third, analyze the impact of rewards programs and whether a rebalancing is necessary to prevent individual goals from being negatively affecting the team effort.

Does This Really Matter?
Analogies between sport and business are often used to motivate managers and employees, but that’s usually where they stop. The words are not put into action, and nothing changes. Helpful lessons, whether from sports analogies, consultant reports or something else, are not absorbed and performance continues to decline. In the end, the business muddles along until it’s bankrupt and disappears.

The seven practices discussed in this article are critical to the success of any team, whether on the court, in the field or at the office. To show why these matter, let’s take the practices and pull them from the game. You can do this with any sport and get the same results.

Imagine what would happen if your son takes the field of his Little League game, but nobody knows the rules of play, how to win or even the name of game to be played. We also won’t let them know who’s winning, assuming they figure out how to play. And once it’s over, we’ll hop in the car and drive home without a word about what just happened.

You would expect puzzled players and disastrous results, right? Well, that’s exactly what’s happening at many businesses that don’t follow these practices. People are working without a clear picture of the end game. Some don’t understand their role, the rules or expectations. And, at the end of the day, they have no indication as to whether they’ve succeeded or failed.

Granted, it’s a stretch to think all seven of these practices are missing from any given workplace. But the end results are just as disastrous even if one or two are ignored. Imagine a company where employees are told exactly what their position is, how to succeed and whether they are performing. But managers at this company don’t acknowledge success or show workers how to do the job better. In this company, employees are likely to have low morale and start looking elsewhere for another team to join.

To return to the sports analogy, you can’t cut costs by firing the coaching staff and expect good results even though the other practices are still used. And yet many businesses see some of these practices as optional extras that can be ignored when convenient or cut when the budget is tight.

None of these practices is optional, ever. Take a close look at your business for any missing practices. If any are absent, think about how that would translate into disaster in sport. From there, it won’t be difficult to see the damage that’s being caused to your business. The good news is it’s not too late to implement any of these seven practices. Before you know it, your teams will be accepting the trophy and celebrating success.