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Basketball Teams, Bowling Teams, and Your Teams: Understanding Interdependence

This will be a riff on a metaphor that’s one of my favorites regarding teams–but which I haven’t been able to trace to its source. I welcome any comments about where this metaphor was first introduced and by whom.

In an earlier post, I proposed that the interdependence of team members is an essential element of what makes them a team. Also that building understanding of and appreciation for this interdependence is fundamental to team-building. The level of interdependence among team members, however, varies–a lot. And this has implications for team performance and for team-building.

Consider two five-person athletic teams, one a bowling team and the other a basketball team. It might help to consider these two teams as consisting of the same five individuals. Perhaps they bowl together on Mondays and play basketball together on Thursdays.

Now consider the level of interdependence among the members of this team when they are bowling. They presumably bowl separately, in the sense that only one person is on the lane at a time. One person, ten pins, one ball, two attempts. That’s the structure of bowling. While one person bowls, the involvement of the other member of the teams is limited to emotional and perhaps verbal support. Plus an incentive, maybe, as in a “beer-frame.” There is also an opportunity for coaching and feedback about the approach, the grip, the release, the follow-through, etc.  But when you bowl, you bowl alone. And the team’s score? It’s the simple sum of the scores of the members of the team (perhaps adjusted in league play by a handicap). It would be feasible–but probably against league rules–for members to bowl at different times, even on different days. Need some practice? Go to the lanes alone and roll a few lines. The level of interdependence among the members of the bowling team is minimal. In team play, only the composite–not the individual–score counts. That’s it.

Before you know it, it’s Thursday and time for a few games of roundball at the local gym. Same five players. Consider the level of interdependence in team play now. For one thing, all five players are on the court at the same time while the ball is in play. They play together, not separately. Scoring happens when one person sinks the shot. But in order for that to happen, other team members must do their parts in real time. In-bounding, fast-breaks, passes, and assists are essential to success in the game. Rebounds, dunks, three-pointers, and other individual acts within the game are ALWAYS set up, enabled, or facilitated in some way by the actions of other team members. The score is the team’s score–despite the importance of individual stats. This is not to minimize the contribution of franchise players–but in simple terms could any of them win a game alone?

So what? Business teams can theoretically be placed anywhere along the continuum between the relative low interdependence of bowling teams and the relative high interdependence of basketball teams. I maintain, however, that most business teams today are well along the scale toward the highly interdependent basketball model. That’s a result of increasing complexity and the radical pace of change.

Think about leadership issues like motivation, incentives, goal setting, and feedback. A problem arises when leadership practices that work for bowling teams are applied instead to high-interdependence teams. Attempts to motivate individuals to higher individual performance are fine–but could backfire when it’s the team performance that counts and creates business results. Incentives for individual performance are fine, unless they inadvertently value my score over our score. Stretch goals for individuals can work very well, except that avoidable conflicts arise when I meet mine and you don’t meet yours or we don’t meet ours. Feedback about my performance is essential if I’m to improve, but the feedback should also bear on my contribution to the team if we are to improve together.

Here’s what I think: a bowling-team mentality about leadership practices and team building is not likely to pay off today. More than ever before, we are all in this together.

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