With 162 games a year American Major League baseball has the most games per season of any major sport. Time not spent competing during the baseball season is spent training, often also on a game day. This means your average baseball team usually has about 180 days practicing, per year.
For basketball the split is around 82 regular season games and 180 training days during the season. For NFL players its 150 days in practice for 17 regular season games and for Australian Football, it’s 180 days in practice for 22 games.
At the highest level of sports performance, we see that practicing consumes most of a professional athlete’s time. The same is true for professions such as musicians, fire fighters and soldiers, who invest heavily and regularly in practice, to perform when it matters most.
Observing a team practicing, irrespective of sport, you’ll find a common thread where specialist trainers work with the athletes to assess, refine, and work on areas of improvements individually and collectively. Moving between full team and specialist functional group practice (think pitchers, defensive line, goalies, etc), teams are deconstructed and reconstructed over the course of a practice. Individuals learn and improve on discreet skills, and then, once brought together, the full team learns how to operate more successfully together. All this work is driven by and focused on the next game day.
Compare this to the typical person working in a business team, which is expected to perform at their best every day at work. With an average 250 working days a year in the USA, UK and Australia, there is no standard amount of time a professional is afforded for “practicing”.
Practicing isn’t really a thing in business, like it is in sports. The reasons for this are obvious: a call centre team needs to be operative during their hours of availability, a project team are working towards their deadlines to deliver on what they’ve committed, and a consulting team must be “billable” to generate revenue. But we do expect performance, especially from our most important teams: those which engage directly with our customers or those responsible for driving transformational change.
In my experience working in European and Australasian businesses, most organisations will usually allow for 3–5 days of training for their employees annually. Training, a type of practicing, is usually individual and done in isolation from the team, and often focuses on individual professional career development skills acquisition. Rarely is a team afforded time away from “business as usual” to assess, refine and work on areas of improvements.
In business, our interventions tend to be rare, disconnected, and removed from the real life work we do — think of the workshops you’ve attended, the leadership seminars, etc. The intentional is good — we aim to learn and improve, but the mechanism, the delivery channel is poor — workshops, seminars, etc. usually with no follow up, no tracking or cohesion.
Most complex organizations have a documented “way of working”, which, in theory, should provide guidelines and instructions about how to work well together. Likewise, complex endeavours like transformation projects or technology delivery use a derivate or ancillary approach to work stemming from technology implementation or digital product delivery methods. Nether corporate “ways of working” procedures or methodologically driven team structures are guarantees for successful team collaboration and outcomes.
How we chose to work together and how we chose to enable better team performance is what makes the difference between average and top performing teams. For this reason, I’m an advocate for business teams intentionally selecting, applying and assessing the effectiveness of their team through team practices, a collection of rituals and ceremonies, learning and assessment opportunities for a business team. A practice serves the same purpose that sport’s team practicing does but can be applied “during business hours”.
If practicing is an opportunity for a sports team to assess, refine and work on areas of improvements, together and individually, business team practices are intentional, selected based upon fact-based diagnostics about a team’s performance and are fungible.
Some examples of business team practices are:
· A “top of the week” team meeting to set weekly objectives, align on priorities and flag obstacles (cognition)
· Team member individual “user manuals” that document working and communication preferences, as well as specific like their Clifton Strength’s personality (emotional/social)
· Monthly team retrospectives that allow for an internal team dialogue on past performance, and foster agreement on the coming month (assessment/diagnostic)
· A Team “Kudos” board, which collect and displays praise received, individually or as a team, for their work (behavioural/motivational)
· Individual career plans which specifically align an individual’s professional aspiration and the team’s objectives (motivational)
· A clearly defined customer “persona” printed out and visible to the whole team in their workspace (motivational/cognition)
Each of these example practices help to further the team’s performance objectives. Practices should be enhanced and exchanged in light of their current effectiveness for other practices that better serves the team as it develops and grows (fungibility).
There has to be an intentionality about selecting team practices from areas that we know will have the most impact on term performance is critical for this approach to work. When I think about the domains that most matter in my own experience and in my reading of team performance academic literature, five domains stand out:
· Cognitive: Focuses on knowledge sharing, team self-awareness, and subject matter expertise.
· Motivational: Concentrates on shared goals, aspirations, commitment, and beliefs.
· Behavioural: Pertains to processes, standards, task clarity, and working methods.
· Emotional and Social Dynamics: Understanding and managing emotions within the team, fostering psychological safety, and building trust.
· Assessment and Diagnostic: How the team measures performance, learns from experiences, and incorporates feedback into its functioning
Selecting and applying practices from each of these domains, can provide a more coherent, unique and successful approach for how to collaborate more successfully as a business team
1. This is an update to the Functional Team Fitness Model discussed here: https://medium.com/@taural/an-introduction-to-functional-team-fitness-f686c2c5771b
2. The sports statistics were calculated with the number of “in-season” games, and taking into account season length.