Virtual Teams

Multiple team working means professional sports are a poor guide to today’s teams

For the skills of leading and working in traditional teams, we often use sports metaphors and language. Indeed, some successful figures from the field of sports are paid large sums to lecture to business people on what they have learned in this environment, about the lessons of teamwork and how these lessons can be applied in business. However these lessons are a poor guide to success in modern virtual and multiple team working.

I have personally never been a fan of this; managing a team of highly paid, highly recognised and pampered people who have dedicated their lives to a particular sport, seems very different from the reality of managing people in a large complex organisation. Similarly, some of the behaviours of professional sports stars would not be tolerated in a large corporate organisation.

The traditional sports metaphor may just have had some relevance when traditional teams were located in a physical place and when people tended to be dedicated to a single team.

However, today most people experience virtual and multiple team workings. Few of us have the luxury of one boss and a single set of colleagues working with a single set of priorities. A Gallup survey for McKinsey found that 84% of people experienced multiple team working at least part of the time and 35% worked on multiple teams every day.

In addition, many of these teams are not co-located, they are virtual, separated by some combination of distance, cultures, time zones, working through technology and organisational complexity (such as in a cross functional, matrix or networked organisation).

It is true that professional sports teams do have to deal with cultural differences. Players from more than 60 countries play regularly in the English Premier league. However, they do not face the other drivers of complexity that people in today’s teams experience every day.

I was trying to think of an analogous sports environment. The nearest I came up with was to imagine a group of individuals playing FIFA 2017 online. But instead of controlling a whole team, each player controls just one player out of the 22. Imagine they are playing online with colleagues they don’t know very well and may never have met.

Not only that but multiple team working means they play for four other teams with a completely different set of teammates every week and each of the coaches of these four teams wants you to attend their meetings and coaching sessions and copies you on their emails.

To add to the complexity, some of your team members will be asleep at different times because of time zones and you will only be able to communicate with them through technology.

This gives you some idea how much more complex virtual and multiple team working is than traditional face-to-face teams where members are dedicated fully to the team.

Now this is our reality, and we do find ways to be successful in this complex environment. What we should be doing, however, is to stop harking back to lessons from a massively simpler and better resourced environment in professional sports teams. It may be entertaining to listen to your sporting heroes tell stories about their environment, but the learning is tangential at best.

Maybe we should be offering as business people to go and talk to professional sports teams about the complexity in our world and how much simpler their jobs are.nd

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