Sick Of Sports: Why Rock Bands Are A Better Metaphor For Work Teams

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Sports teams are the canonical metaphor for teamwork. We try to “pick winners” to score “slam dunks.” Team leaders “coach” team members and then “send in heavy hitters” who “step up to the plate” and sometimes “take one for the team,” all the while “keeping their eyes on the ball.” Books by celebrity coaches preaching teamwork and leadership lessons from sports are bestsellers.

The language we use to talk about our world shapes how we think about it, and using (or overusing) specific metaphors can lead us to understand our work life in partial ways. Are sports teams the most appropriate examples for today’s work teams?

In sports, there are clear winners and losers. The rules of the game rarely change. The organizational cast of characters—teams, leagues—is stable. Great team performance hinges mostly on real-time execution. And customer needs and expectations don’t change, nor are they the focus of the team. Winning is.

In contrast, for many organizational teams, great performance hinges on their ability to be creative and adapt to an environment that is in constant flux. For most teams, meeting the needs of their customers—whether internal to their organizations or out in the marketplace—is more important than beating their competition. In fact, successfully satisfying their customers is the way to beat the competition. And doing that means responding rapidly to challenges and opportunities.

In the past few years, I have been investigating what rock bands teach us about teamwork. Like any business, rock bands create new products (concerts, recordings, videos) that they sell in the marketplace. Like business teams, they have to satisfy a variety of stakeholders: their customers (audiences), their peers, and their critics. Rock bands must be able to recognize revenue-making opportunities and even create new ones where none existed before.

Unlike sports teams and like most organizational teams, rock bands do their work in a fast-changing environment, where customer aesthetic and cultural values are in constant flux. Rock bands are aware of their competition. After all, consumers have a finite budget for rock shows and they certainly have a finite capacity for listening. At the same time, bands forge partnerships with other bands. They work together to create new musical styles, produce festivals, and collaborate on exciting products that increase the pie for everyone. In other work contexts, teams both compete and collaborate to maintain the health of their industry.

There are many ways in which rock bands differ from the typical organizational team. They are less bound by organizational structures. They sometimes make decisions based on artistic rather than commercial considerations. But they still offer an exciting source of inspiration for creative teamwork. Every time we attend a show or hear a song on the radio, we witness the result of a high-performance creative team.

Work is conducted in an increasingly complex world. The language and metaphors we choose to think about our work should reflect this complexity. As we know from the prevalence of cheating scandals in both boardrooms and locker rooms, there is a price to placing winning above all else. As exciting as it is to watch a great sports team, organizational teamwork is more complex than the playing field. By focusing on winning and losing, the sports metaphor narrows what we can ultimately accomplish.

So next time you have an idea, consider “riffing” on it. At your next meeting, have a “jam session” and get “into a groove.” And next time you meet with a client, “play it by ear.”

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