Caption: Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant’s 2012 movie, Thunderstruck, was originally titled, Switch!
Frank Deford writes in his essay, “The Ultimate Contradiction”, that basketball is: …the most intimate — even organic — of all the team games, with its players more fundamentally involved with one another.” That’s an illuminating observation, even to me since I am no stranger to transferring insights from the hardwood to the workplace.
Chapter 8 in Leading from the Middle is “More Than a Game: A Season with a Women’s Basketball Team,” about how a team met challenges and displayed the finest kind of transcendent teamwork.
Besides noting that all players touch the ball and play both offense and defense – no platooning and specializing - Deford gives us two basketball terms to consider. The first is “Switch” in which a screened or blocked player calls for help and literally switches his role with another player.
His second is “Give and go," a basic play where after passing – giving up the ball - to a team-mate, the passer quickly cuts toward the basket, and receives the return pass back from his team-mate for the score.
I would add a third, the “Assist.” It’s the end result of the “cut and go” and other strategems in which a player creates a scoring opportunity by giving up the ball. Blocked inside, a player “kicks out” the ball to an open player – she scores. That’s an assist, and a perfect metaphor for the workplace where what you do directly helps another succeed.
While I was dwelling on Deford, my nephew posted or “facebooked” his experience with an on-line-class project:
“Professor says: "I want your mini-essays to be 300-500 words"
Team gives: 3 short paragraphs totally MAYBE 200 words.
Professor says: "You must cite at least one peer-reviewed journal in each mini-essay"
Team gives: Only cites the textbook
In other words, guess who gets to rewrite the team's mini-essay that's due at midnight? Wheeeeeeeeeeee!”
No give and go, no switch, and no assist. He’s not the first or the last to encounter dysfunctional teams in class or the office. Yet, some teams, somehow, become high performing. How does that happen? Luck? In my nephew’s case, I doubt if the professor explained what was expected from each team member. He probably left it open on how they would go about doing their work. And, I doubt if the project teams established any guidelines on how to work together. For many team projects, everything is assumed and nothing is agreed. The same happens in the work place when we create teams and provide them with little guidance.
Basketball, like all team sports, can help us understand why some teams click and why many fail. The best teams communicate, all the time. In basketball, a team that chatters, signals, and talks through each play will disconcert a silent opponent – the opponent does not know what to make of it. Nor can the switch or the give and go be done in communicative silence. When screened or blocked, the player calls out, “Help, help, switch” and as Deford says, “At least for a while, you must become me, and me you.” That’s extraordinary teamwork. Not only does the player know what to do, how to switch, he willingly does so, replacing you so you can get free to shut down an otherwise easy goal by the opposition. How often do you hear, “Help, help, switch” in the office?
Players on the best teams help each other. It is an accepted norm and behavior. It is what you do. In my chapter, “The Unstodgy Airline” I explain how ramp agents – the ground crew - help each other out; indeed, switching is part of their game plan.
“Southwest is resourceful. Ramp agents know to plan ahead, to anticipate. … “Our turnaround time (the best in the business) is not the result of tricks,” CEO Kelleher says, “but the result of our dedicated employees, who have the willpower and pride to do whatever it takes.” On an occasion, pilots have helped empty luggage bins. I asked a supervisor if “whatever it takes” was indeed widely practiced at Southwest? The answer: “Some people help so much they miss their lunch.”
And, the training coordinator told me.” It’s common sense to help each other out. Not helping is rare; you know if you are helped, you help in return.”
Caption: Switching at Southwest.
While I was on the tarmac observing the ramp team’s work, I saw switching in action. When the provisioner’s job was done inside the plane, he dropped down to the tarmac – in the wind and rain - to help hoist luggage onto a belt-loader. I’d score him an “assist!”.
Becoming a good team takes work. I have held for a long time that a team itself has to figure out most of its working dynamics – a coach’s or supervisor’s assigning roles, at best a first step, is not the same nor as effective. It is best for the team to take the time to decide who is going to do what and when and why. The team has to answer these questions: What happens when one or more of us slack off? How will we disagree? How will we confront each other when things are not going well? How will we ask each other for help? Will we give help when asked?
My nephew’s group project team is going the way of too many teams; one or two people will do the work, while others appear to be content to coast along and accept credit for non-work. No one takes on the risk of calling the behavior and confronting the team. You’re left with a tacit, shrugging acceptance – it is what it is - instead of a spirited questioning and a fair and trustful resolution. In sports, when a team is struggling, the coach will often ask for help from the captains – or, better, the captains will intervene on their own. These peers are expected to confront the team, away from management, away from the coach and to help get the team back on track. When I asked about the three captains on the women’s team I studied, a player told me, “Anytime we aren’t playing focused or hard, our captains are always the 1st people to say something to try and pull us together again. They keep us from being down on ourselves and help us to play as a team.”
I do not think we have anything like elected captains on our work teams, perhaps we should – they might get us past the inevitable “being down on ourselves” and to “help us to play as a team”.