Lessons from sports and other worlds

Article by Kevan Hall, CEO, Global Integration. He leads his own cross cultural and remote organization and has clients and suppliers around the world, as well as offering consultancy and training to build the people capability to make complex organizations faster, less expensive to run and more satisfying to work in.

I received an invitation today to attend a HR conference where I could listen to three leading figures from the sports world on what business has to learn from them.

Whilst all three are interesting and inspirational figures and there may be some parallels between motivation and management in sports and in business, there are also some huge differences.

In sports they usually deal with highly motivated, and often very well-paid individuals. These individuals have committed to a particular sport or activity at an early age and most have a passion for what they do. Many are also very insular and self-obsessed.

There is a world of difference between managing individuals like these, even when they are combined into teams, and managing the routine activity of day to day business – and thank goodness! Many sports organizations are in commercial difficulties due to the high level of salaries paid to the ‘talent’ at the expense of their customers – the spectators.

At best the sports and ‘other world’ parallels offer some inspiration and some high-level ideas. At worst they descend into trite recommendations.

I recall reading one Sportsman advising me that “companies should find out what their customers want and offer them it.” In a similar vein, as someone who knows nothing about athletics, I would recommend “run faster than everyone else and make sure you get past the finishing line first”: accurate, but largely useless.

We know that to become world-class in anything you need to spend 10,000 hours of purposeful practice and feedback. If you spend those 10,000 hours focusing on sports you should expect to be an expert in your field; if you’ve spent it focusing on business you should expect to be an expert in business. To assume that because you ar expert in one you can advise another is suspect.

I think we have to be open to new ideas and inspiration but really challenge whether lessons learned in sports are that applicable to highly complex commercial organizations.

Some of the lessons we’ve learned from sports such as an obsessive focus on teamwork can be positively damaging in large organizations where global virtual teams experience very high levels of transaction costs for example.

If the lessons are directly transferable then we should also ask why more business people are not running  successful sports teams – for example, why do premiership football managers have to be ex-footballers? A good expose of the negative effects of this can be found in the book “Why England lose”.

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