Team sports, among the world’s most popular pastimes, offer a helpful analog to clarify how teamwork varies depending on the nature of the game. Every competition calls for its own unique patterns of interaction. Because of this, distinctive structures are required for different sports. Social architecture is thus remarkably different for baseball, football, and basketball.
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Baseball Baseball player Pete Rose once noted, “Baseball is a team game, but nine men whomeet their individual goals make a nice team” (Keidel, 1984, p. 8). In baseball, as in cricket and other bat-and-ball games, a loosely integrated confederacy makes a team. Individual efforts are mostly autonomous, seldom involving more than two or three players at a time. Signi”cant distances, particularly on defense, separate players. Loose connections reduce the need for synchronization among the various positions. The pitcher and catcher need to coordinate, as do in”elders dealing with a ground ball or out”elders playing a high !y. But batters are alone at the plate, and “elders are often on their own to make a play.
Managers’ decisions are mostly tactical, normally involving individual substitutions or actions. Managers come and go without seriously disrupting the team’s play. Players can transfer from one team to another with relative ease. John Updike summed it up well: “Of all the team sports, baseball, with its graceful intermittence of action, its immense and tranquil “eld sparsely salted with poised men in white, its dispassionate mathematics, seemed to be best suited to accommodate, and be ornamented by, a loner. It is an essentially lonely game” (Keidel, 1984, pp. 14–15).
Football American football and other chess-like sports such as rugby and curling create a structural con”guration very different from baseball. These games proceed through a series of moves, or plays. Between plays, teams plan strategy for the next move. Unlike baseball players, football players perform in close proximity. Linemen and offensive backs hear, see, and often touch one another. Each play involves every player on the “eld. A prearranged plan links efforts sequentially. The actions of linemen pave the way for the movement of backs; a defensive team’s “eld position becomes the starting point for the offense, and vice versa. In the transition from offense to defense, specialty platoons play a pivotal role.
Efforts of individual players are tightly synchronized. George Allen, former coach of the Washington Redskins, put it this way: “A football team is a lot like a machine. It’s made up of parts. If one part doesn’t work, one player pulling against you and not doing his job, the whole machine fails” (Keidel, 1984, p. 9).
Tight connections among parts require a football team to be well integrated, mainly through planning and top-down control. The primary units are the offensive, defensive, and specialty platoons, each with its own coordinator. Under the direction of the head coach, the team uses scouting reports and other surveillance to develop a strategy or game plan in advance. During the game, the head coach typically makes strategic decisions. Assistants or designated players on either offense or defense make tactical decisions (Keidel, 1984).
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A football team’s tight-knit character makes it tougher to swap players from one team to another. Irv Cross, of the Philadelphia Eagles, once remarked, “An Eagles player could never make an easy transition to the Dallas Cowboys; the system and philosophies are just too different” (Keidel, 1984, p. 15). Unlike baseball, football requires intricate strategy and tightly meshed execution.
Basketball In basketball and similar games, like soccer (football everywhere but North America), hockey, and lacrosse, players perform in even closer proximity to one another than football players do. In quick, rapidly moving transitions, offense becomes defense—with the same players. Efforts of individuals are reciprocal; each player depends on the performance of others. Each may be involved with any of the others. Anyone can handle the ball or attempt to score.
Basketball is much like improvisational jazz. Teams require a high level of spontaneous, mutual adjustment. Everyone is on the move, often in an emerging pattern rather than a predetermined course. A successful basketball season depends heavily on a !owing relationship among team members who read and anticipate one another’s moves. Players who play together a long time develop a sense of what their teammates will do. A team of newcomers has trouble adjusting to individual predispositions or quirks. Unlike football, basketball has no platoons. It is wholly a harmonized group effort.
Coaches, who sit or roam the sidelines, serve as integrators. Their periodic interventions reinforce team cohesion, helping players coordinate laterally on the move. Unlike baseball teams, basketball teams cannot function as a collection of individual stars. During the 2016 basketball season, the rather dismal performance of the Los Angeles Lakers was attributed to it being a loose array of individual stars rather than a well-knit uni”ed team. Conversely, the San Antonio Spurs became one of the most consistently successful teams in professional basketball by emphasizing teamwork. According to LeBron James, that’s how the Spurs beat his team in the 2014 NBA championships: “It’s all for the team and it’s never about the individual. That’s the brand of basketball, and that’s how team basketball should be played” (Ginsburg, 2014).
Duke University’s women’s basketball success in 2000 documented the importance of group interdependence and cohesion. The team won because players could anticipate the actions of others. The individual “I” deferred to the collective “we.” Passing to a teammate was valued as highly as making the shot. Basketball is “fast, physically close, and crowded, 20 arms and legs in motion, up, down, across, in the air. The better the team, the more precise the passing into lanes that appear blocked with bodies” (Lubans, 2001, p. 1).
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DETERMINANTS OF SUCCESSFUL TEAMWORK In sports and elsewhere, structural pro”les of successful teams depend on the game—what a team is trying to do. Keidel (1984) suggests several important questions in designing an appropriate structure:
• What is the nature and degree of dealings among individuals?
• What is the spatial distribution of unit members?
• Where does authority reside?
• How are efforts integrated?
• Which word best describes the required structure: conglomerate, mechanistic, or organic?
• What sports metaphor captures the task of management: “lling out the line-up card, preparing the game plan, or in!uencing the game’s !ow?
Appropriate team structures can vary, even within the same organization. For example, a senior research manager in a pharmaceutical “rm observed a structural progression in discovering and developing a new drug: “The process moves through three distinct stages. It’s like going from baseball to football to basketball” (Keidel, 1984, p. 11).
In basic research, individual scientists work independently to develop a body of knowledge. As in baseball, individual labors are the norm. Once a promising drug is identi”ed, it passes from developmental chemists to pharmacy researchers to toxicologists. If the drug receives preliminary federal approval, it moves to clinical researchers for experimental tests. These sequential relationships are reminiscent of play sequences in football. In the “nal stage (“new drug application”), physicians, statisticians, pharmacists, pharmacologists, toxicologists, and chemists work closely and reciprocally to win “nal approval from the Food and Drug Administration. Their efforts resemble the closely linked and !owing patterns of a basketball team (Keidel, 1984).
Jan Haynes, former executive vice president of FzioMed, a California developer of new biomedical approaches to preventing scar tissue following surgical procedures, echoes the pharmaceutical executive’s observations. She adds, “In sports a game lasts only a short period of time. In our business, each game goes on for months, even years. It more closely resembles cricket. A single game can go on for days and still end in a draw. Our product has been in the trial stage for several years and we still don’t have “nal approval.”
Ron Haynes, the “rm’s chairman, points out the challenge of adapting his leadership style as the rules of the game change: “I moved frommanager to owner of an expansion team where we have several games being played simultaneously in the same stadium. If our
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leadership can’t shift quickly from one to another, our operation won’t get the job done right.” Doing the right job requires a structure that evolves to “t what FzioMed is trying to accomplish.
TEAM STRUCTURE AND TOP PERFORMANCE In developing their book The Wisdom of Teams, Katzenbach and Smith (1993) interviewed hundreds of participants on more than “fty teams. Their sample encompassed thirty enterprises in settings as diverse as Motorola, Hewlett-Packard, Operation Desert Storm, and the Girl Scouts. They drew a clear distinction between undifferentiated “groups” and sharply focused teams: “A team is a small number of people with complementary skills, who are committed to a common purpose, set of performance goals and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable” (p. 112).
Katzenbach and Smith’s research highlights six distinguishing characteristics of high- quality teams:
• High-performing teams shape purpose in response to a demand or an opportunity placed in their path, usually by higher management. Top managers clarify the team’s charter, rationale, and challenge while giving the team !exibility to work out goals and plans of operation. By giving a team clear authority and then staying out of the way, management releases collective energy and creativity.
• High-performing teams translate common purpose into speci!c, measurable performance goals. “If a team fails to establish speci”c performance goals or if those goals do not relate directly to the team’s overall purpose, team members become confused, pull apart, and revert to mediocre performance. By contrast, when purpose and goals are built on one another and are combined with team commitment, they become a powerful engine of performance” (p. 113).
• High-performing teams are of manageable size.Katzenbach and Smith “x the optimal size for an effective team somewhere between two and twenty-“ve people: “Ten people are far more likely than “fty to work through their individual, functional, and hierarchical differences toward a common plan and to hold themselves jointly accountable for the results” (p. 114). More members mean more structural complexity, so teams should aim for the smallest size that can get the job done.
• High-performing teams develop the right mix of expertise. The structural frame stresses the critical link between specialization and expertise. Effective teams seek out the full
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range of necessary technical !uency; “product development teams that include only marketers or engineers are less likely to succeed than those with the complementary skills of both” (p. 115). In addition, exemplary teams “nd and reward expertise in problem solving, decision making, and interpersonal skills to keep the group focused, on task, and free of debilitating personal squabbles.
• High-performing teams develop a common commitment to working relationships. “Team membersmust agree on who will do particular jobs, how schedules will be set and adhered to, what skills need to be developed, how continuing membership in the team is to be earned, and how the group will make and modify decisions” (p. 115). Effective teams take time to explore who is best suited for a particular task as well as how individual roles come together. Achieving structural clarity varies from team to team, but it takes more than an organization chart to identify roles and pinpoint one’s place in the of”cial pecking order and layout of responsibilities. Most teams require a clear understanding of who is going to dowhat and howpeople relate to each other in carrying out diverse tasks. An effective team “establishes a social contract among members that relates to their purpose and guides and obligates how they will work together” (Katzenbach and Smith, 1993, p. 116).