Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Teams’ Category

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.

“Team-Building” depends on what the definition of “team” is . . .

Despite thousands of pages and posts, I hope there is room for yet another definition of what we mean when we talk about “teams.” After all, without agreement on what the thing is, it’s unlikely we’ll be successful in building it. Modesty fails to prevent me from offering my own definition as The Final Answer:

A team is a group of people who depend on each other to accomplish something they all care about.

The salient features of this definition are:

  1. The most obvious one: it’s people (more than just one) and they are associated in some evident or conscious way. (A no-brainer, but bear with me, because it leads to an important diagnostic question.)
  2. The members of the team depend on each other; there is not just mutual interest but true interdependence.
  3. There is something to be done, accomplished, achieved, or completed. Call it a purpose, a goal, or even a mission.
  4. The members of the team care about number three. They’re not just there for the fellowship, fun, or camaraderie–unless that’s explicitly all there is to number three for this group of people.

So your team is having trouble. You’d like to take action to improve the way they function or get along together. Perhaps you engage an internal or external facilitator to do “team-building.” Here’s how this definition might help you: before you spend time and money on trust-falls, group therapy, or motivational tote-bags, do some diagnosis.

First: Do the people you’re concerned about know they’re a team? Especially these days, when widely distributed teams are common, it’s fair to ask whether these people even know that each other exists. Just because they all report to you, have the same job title, are in the same cost center, or are all in Bangladesh does not make them a team.

Second: Do the members of the team require the active cooperation, support, involvement, or participation of each other? “Require” is the operative word. Can any member succeed without the others? If so, I question whether this is a team.

Third: Do the members of the team have a common purpose, goal, or mission that they can name and describe? My thesis is that a common goal of some kind in a sense creates the team–or, if you prefer, enables teaming. From this perspective, team is a verb rather than a noun. While there is no “I” in team, there is necessarily a “why.”

Fourth, and finally: Do the members of the team care about its purpose, mission, or goal? To what extent does each member have and demonstrate commitment?

Based on sound answers to these four questions, you may be ready for “team-building” in one or more of four forms:

If the problem is that the people on the team do not know they’re on a team, team-building means informing them of this fact. This is seldom “the problem” in team-building, so go on from here to the other three elements of this definition before you call the group together for introductions.

If the problem is that the members of the team don’t realize how interdependent they are, then team-building could take the form of exploring and reinforcing these interdependencies. This is different from just getting to know each other; it’s about fully realizing that members depend on each other for success.

If the problem is that the members of the team are fuzzy about why they are a team and/or what they are trying to accomplish, then team-building should consists of clarifying purpose, goals, and mission.

And finally, if the problem is that members do not care about or are not visibly committed to the team’s goals, then building that commitment is the challenge of team-building.

There are many tools and techniques for tackling any and all of these four challenges, widely available from good sources. The trick is to diagnose carefully before leaping into action.

I propose that issues of trust, personal disclosure, cheerleading, camaraderie, fellowship, and many or most issues of interpersonal conflict will take care of themselves if the manager and consultant work together on the four questions I pose as the fundamental elements of team-building.