Looking Beyond The Box Score: A Baseball Metaphor

Baseball is really an individual sport.  We think of it as a team sport, but when you analyze it, 90% of it is made up of individual contributions.  Yes the pitcher and the catcher coordinate on calling the pitches and creating the flow of the game, but 90% of that activity is dependent on the pitcher executing his pitch; the speed, location and ball movement have very little to do with what pitch the catcher called for.  While there is coaching, only the batter can hit the ball.  Fielding batted balls, throwing and catching are individual activities, chained together to make a play.  It really is an individual spot.

Of course, that type of thinking will get you in trouble.  Just look at the LA Dodgers <cue boos!>.  They were 2 games behind the SF Giants <cue cheers!> when they added 6 key players to their team – 3 of them stars with huge potential.  What happened?  Of course they imploded.  There is an intangible side to baseball which is what makes it a team sport.  When the team gels, mountains can be climbed.  When they splinter, they circle the drain (ok, the 72-73 Oakland A’s are the exception that proves the rule.)  It doesn’t matter how much of an individual contributor you are, if your teammates don’t back you, things fall apart, disaster ensues.

On a cohesive team, when one person fails to execute, the others don’t feel the pressure to “pick him up.”  They want to pick him up.  They want to help everyone move forward.  Internal values will have been created that tells people it is time to do something for the team; excellence is often created.  In times of pressure you can see great teams work to cover “failures”, fix issues and exceed.  And you can see splintered groups place blame and try to justify why it isn’t their fault.  Often this comes from the fact that some players are more worried about their statistics and their next contract than the success of the team.  When the team is placed second, everyone suffers.

Other times, it is more about chemistry and how the team bonds and works together to build that feeling of wanting to succeed together.  I cannot say that there are selfish or “me first” players on the Dodgers – I really don’t know.  We all know one or two players added late in the season can be the catalyst to spark a team forward to over achieve.  In my mind, adding so many players to the Dodgers over such a short span may have fractured the camaraderie of those left and making it impossible to find that mixture of talent, desire and teamwork needed to succeed. It is clear the Dodgers did much worse after their roster revision than they did before.

We have all heard the phrase “there is no “I” in team.”  I have always understood it, but never really been in a position to see one or two seriously selfish people destroy a team.  Often, when you are an individual contributor you don’t think about how to interact with others.  You know your stuff and you make it right.  The problem is that there really are very few roles left for individual contributors in today’s business environment.  Most everything in today’s wired world requires a high degree of coordination, communication and cooperation.

I’ve shared some of the rough patches I have gone through recently in some past entries.  As rough as those were, they were nowhere near the roughest. The last 2 weeks were devastating in many ways.  I saw firsthand multiple contributors working on their portions of a project and refusing to effectively communicate with others and with me.  In some cases, there was significant lack of cooperation – ok let’s be honest, there was zero cooperation between most of the participants.  This lead to disaster after disaster; lack of communication leading to tasks that could not be done.  It was chaos, individuals telling other individuals they were smarter and better prepared than the others and more fighting than you can imagine.  There was zero teamwork and definitely less camaraderie.

The project was supposed to be completed Saturday at 5pm.  Here it is Tuesday – 10 days later – and there is still much to do.  We were able to cobble some things together and have some critical services available by 9am Monday and most of the services people see done by mid day on Wednesday.  And then the blame game came into full effect.  You can tell your team players, at least the ones that want to be on a team, as they own their mistakes and don’t look for reasons to blame others.  They are busier looking for solutions and trying to help others than in trying to look good.  The team already looks bad; there is no potential to shine. The divisive ones look to find ways to rationalize mistakes and blame others, trying to find a spotlight.  In a time of crisis or clean-up as we were, trying to blame others is counterproductive.  We needed solutions and teamwork, not to look for kudos.

I sat through meetings and side bars this past week (people talk to me and I try to be the glue on the team, but I didn’t do so well this time) blaming others and trying to rationalize why they were not at fault.  Everyone placed another comparatively at fault – 90%-10%.  In truth, it was 55%-45% in every case; basically everyone was at fault, but no one seems to be able to see it.  In retrospect this has been going on for 3 months, and I was completely unable to change things.

This was a huge lesson in teamwork, or lack thereof.  Sure, you can add a bulldog to a team to drive vendors and outside entities.  But you still need to think about how that force interacts with your team.  Even if you think you might have an underperforming team that can use some improvement, you need to consider how personalities mesh – and what is the cost of achievement.  I’m not sure the cost outweighed the damage in this case.  Certain things got done better than they would have been, there is no denying that.  Others were made worse as information became embargoed and fences erected to keep people away from fiefdoms.

As someone who tries to build teams and cohesion, I was both stymied and broken.  Yes, broken.  You can’t talk to people who aren’t ready to listen and even the strongest of us break under constant abuse and pressure.   I take a lot of ownership of this team’s failures.  It really wasn’t a team; it was 3 different factions, each trying to make the others look incompetent.  All that did was make it nearly impossible to complete the project.  I’m not placing blame, but there what little chemistry existed was corrosive.  I didn’t have the right chemicals to neutralize it.

Have you seen the Internet meme which proves, without a shadow of a doubt that there is an “I” in team?  After the last 3 months, it seems very appropriate.

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1 Comment

  1. Ann

     /  October 2, 2012

    That’s some sad reading there – I feel for you. So unnecessary, the fiefdom mentality, the attitude of “it’s all of them/you, not me. I’m innocent and brilliant; you lazy useless backstabbers, y’all suck.” It’s wasteful stupidity, and I detest stupidity. Just imagine what could be accomplished with less of that. I know how lucky I am to have experienced being part of actual team spirit in the old days of my previous job. Which is why that same group of people is still very much a network in contact today, still looking out for each other. Because we liked each other and knew everyone was there for each other, never a need to stomp on others to gain advantage. Rather, we understood that making others succeed made everyone look good, be successful, and be happier. I’d LIKE to think it wasn’t a highly unusual environment. My new place of employment also appears to be populated with actual adults. I hope things get better soon!

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