What Sport is Your Business Playing?

One of the fundamental needs of a business is for all to understand and buy-in to a common goal.  That is why organizational planners have companies set out a common mission, vision, and values.  It is crucial for success to have everyone understand these, or else, it is like aiming at whatever target the team member thinks is best at the time. 

But even when there is commonality of mission, vision, values, and goals, undue friction and conflict may crop up.  Some of this is due to the normal growth patterns of a business, organization, or a church.  As growth increases, complexity increases and the rules of the game change even though the goals may stay the same.  To illustrate, I will use the analogy of sports.

Track is a sport where you practice with others, but you perform alone on most events.  Your goal is to beat your personal best every time you are there.  Sole entrepreneurs are like decathletes.   They may go to conferences and seek advice of others, but ultimately, they are the ones selling the product, answering phones, completing orders, administrative work, and dealing with customer complaints.  Here the limit is how good you can perform each event of the decathlon.   When I first started with Pactola, I was the only person here.  I looked for loans, developed new business, was the IT department, web designer, main underwriter, policy drafter, and HR department.  I was a jack of all trades, but a master of none.

As a business grows, it will move from a decathlon to golf.  Golf is often practiced alone but played in a foursome.  It is highly relational but is performed alone.  The relational factor is why so many business meetings are held on a golf course.  Your performance, though alone, is seen by everyone in your group.  These events are often recounted back at the clubhouse where all the good and bad shots are replayed over refreshments.  A golf organization is one where everyone knows about everyone else’s life. 

As business grows, it will move from golf to baseball.  Baseball is highly relational but begins to have a division of roles or positions.  You have pitchers (starters, middle relievers, closers), infielders, outfielders, utility players, designated hitters, and coaches.  Each of the roles are unique but are highly dependent on each other.  While everyone knows what everyone is doing on the field, not everyone sees everything about each fellow teammate’s life.  Organizations will grow beyond the baseball stage, but players may get stuck and complain that they don’t know everything anymore that they used to.

The next stage of organizational growth is football.  Here the team is so large it may not travel in the same bus together.  Football is divided between offense, defense, and special teams.  Only one of those divisions is representative of a team on the field at any one time.  Each of these divisions also have their own coaches and then assistant coaches for various positions, such as a quarterback coach, receivers’ coach, and offensive line coach.  All the coaches report up to one head coach.

Here not all people know what the others are doing.  The special teams do not get upset when the offense sets up a new pass play.  The quarterback should not be tweaked when a defensive coach shows a new technique to the linebacker and does not include the QB in the training.  Large organizations are like a football team where players may have a general knowledge of the execution of plays of all areas of the team but not a highly specific understanding.  And that level of understanding is OK.

Undue friction may come when a group moves from one sport to another, or where some players on the football team may still be back at the golf stage in the business execution and may yearn for the good ole days when the group was small, and everyone was a close friend.  Maybe you are a small business who is trying to divide up as a football team, when you really need more relational interaction and team execution as a baseball team.  The leader needs to watch for and be aware of players who may be stuck in one sport when the organization has grown in complexity beyond the sport stage they are stuck in.

Look for a sudden increase in low-level frustration.  Maybe Linus in accounting, was upset that Sally did not tell him when she finished the website changes, when all this used to be discussed in the past.  When people who once knew all are now not knowing all, they may feel left behind.  This may just be a part of the natural growth of a business.

Next watch out for meetings that go to long.  People often are getting involved in things they don’t need to be a part of and which are not part of their roles.  I often joke that I have two rules for meetings that come from my Southern Baptist roots.  (1) all meetings should be 20 minutes or less and (2) if you violate rule #1, bring food!  The corporate meeting is often the main roadblock to productivity.  Treat the minutes spent there as precious knowing you will never get any of them back.

Lastly, watch out for an increase in a team-members hurt that results from mis-communication.  As a company grows, especially from the highly relational stages to those which are not as relational, the lack of sharing in some areas which used to be common, may be only because the group has grown to the next sport level where roles take you away from the intimate golf stage. 

The highest performing organizations have shared missions, vision, values, and goals.  They also have team members all playing the same game. Leaders need to be aware when the complexity in the company has caused the game to change and help bring along those who may be stuck playing an old game.