What Your High School Basketball Coach Can Teach You about Teamwork

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As IT plays a growing role in business strategy, the synergy between IT and business is more important than ever. Ryan McClish and Kenton Bohn work through the issues to keep their teams on the same page.

Summary:

If a team is going to be a winner, players need to trust one another and learn how to work together. Just as your high school basketball coach made everyone work on team-building drills before you could develop your own personal skills, software teams also have to collaborate in order to succeed.

Let’s go back in time and pretend you just made your high school basketball team. You worked hard to develop your skills all summer, and it paid off. You show up for the first day of practice, but it doesn’t start off exactly how you imagined.

Like the rest of your team, you have visions of miraculous three-point plays and buzzer-beating shots. You’re eager to compete and showcase your individual talents. It’s no surprise that you’re dismayed when the coach puts the basketballs away in order to focus on team conditioning.

Things become grueling as the team runs, shuffles, and slides until everyone can no longer stand. When the team finally adjusts to the extreme conditioning, they are baffled once again when the coach shifts the focus to team defense. While the team has some extremely skilled players, the coach clearly is not planning to work on individual skill development until much later.

Years afterward, you realize that your coach knew something the rest of the team didn’t understand just yet: Success rarely depends on individual contributions. After all, the other teams had terrific players and, for the most part, were bigger and more athletic than your team. Lesson learned? If a team is going to be a winner, players need to trust one another and learn how to work together. They aren’t just on a team. They have to be a team.

What Does That Have to Do with Software?

It dawned on us recently that this is also true in our businesses. Company mission statements, leadership development, strategic plans, and growth objectives are glamorous and often get the lion’s share of our attention. But, in reality, it has become extremely difficult to outpace your competitors simply by focusing on statements and plans. They are table stakes, just like the individual skills are on a sports team.

Although building effective, high-performing teams can make the difference between success or failure, not many are willing to invest the time and energy to do it. It’s hard and messy work. It involves understanding and working with people (and people can be petty and maddening at times). But just like on the basketball court, those willing to put in the work earn a distinct advantage.

Management guru Patrick Lencioni considers healthy teams to be a major differentiator between successful companies and the rest. In his book The Five Dysfunctions of Teams, he says, “I honestly believe that in this day and age of informational ubiquity and nanosecond change, teamwork remains the one sustainable competitive advantage that has been largely untapped. . . . I can say confidently that teamwork is almost always lacking within organizations that fail, and often present within those that succeed.”

What Is the State of Your Team?

Because teamwork is such an important driver of success, maybe it’s time to assess the health of your team. Here are some topics and questions to consider:

  • Do we know what is expected of us? Is there a clear understanding of what is expected of each member? Are team members performing up to expectations?
  • Do we know our roles and our unique contributions? Do the members of my team know what strengths they bring to the team and the unique value only they can provide?
  • Do we trust each other? Are team members comfortable saying what is on their minds, or do they hold back? Do we have each other’s backs?
  • Is the team aligned on the goal? Does everyone have the same understanding of success? Is everyone focused on the project objective and not just on their piece?
  • Do we fight well? Are we having the hard conversations? Do team members speak directly with each other about issues? Can we disagree constructively? Do we have side conversations and hold grudges? Does team conflict hurt our performance as a team or make it better? Do we deal with problems immediately, or do we let them fester?
  • Do we have respect for each other? Are the words “I’m sorry” and “thank you” spoken on my team? Are people showing up to meetings on time? Are we giving each other constructive feedback? Do people give others credit where and when credit is due?
  • Is everyone engaged? Are people constantly calling off meetings? Is anyone missing critical deliverables? Does everyone understand the state of the project?

Put in the Hard Work

With answers to these questions, you should be able to better identify and address things that are dragging on your team’s performance. Commit yourself to the hard work of true team building even though it might seem easier to focus your energies elsewhere. Sit down with your team and tackle it head on. Start by sharing your concerns and the negative impact they have on the team. Agree together to do whatever it takes to get the team working together. While this may take time and elbow grease, we promise you that unlocking the incredible potential of your team pays huge dividends.

Win!

Teamwork shouldn’t be a thing—it should be the thing. We compete in an industry where team success can face some pretty long odds. High-performing teams are the foundation of everything we do, and we have to make it a point to be proactive about it.

Once you have a handle on your team’s strengths and weaknesses, don’t stop there. Like a great basketball team, maintaining healthy teams over the long haul requires commitment and hard work. Once you think you have it dialed in, reassess your team periodically and address issues that threaten teamwork immediately. Be willing to get outside help if you’re struggling.

The health of your team—and your company—depends on it.

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