Understand What Game You Are Playing

June 11, 2013

rocky kayak crop squareA team is not a team is not a team.

Casually, we refer to teams. Correspondingly, we act as if everyone knows what constitutes as a good team. We sloppily refer to almost any grouping of people assembled to perform a task as a team, and then we speak knowingly about what makes a good team. In reality, the definition of team depends upon the game being played, a reality carefully laid out by Robert Keidel in his writings such as Corporate Players and Game Plans. Furthermore, the teaming skills one needs depend upon the game that the team is playing as does what defines good leadership and followership.

Chapter 8 of Your Job Survival Guide: A Manual for Thriving in Change explores this material, but a brief treatment appears here. Keidel classifies teams according to their level of autonomy, control, and cooperation. An example of a team with a high level of autonomy would be baseball and one with even more would be a track team or swim team. These games require little interaction among the individual performers. Great individual performances, as in a music recital, lead to great team success. On the contrary, members of high control teams such as synchronized swim teams, American football teams or orchestras have deeply scripted, role specific interdependence. High cooperation or collaboration teams such as soccer, lacrosse, hockey or basketball play a game of deep interdependence but, like a jazz group, improvisation characterizes much of their play.

To determine if you have a good team, and how to improve it, you need to know what game you are playing. Baseball celebrates the individual performer and its initiative. Any given play may require coordination of a few team members, but the team with the best individual players usually triumphs, regardless of their relations with one another. An orchestral concert, like football, depends on role specialization, hierarchy, and game plans. One has to follow the script, led by the conductor or coach, as the team plans the work and works the plan. Soccer or jazz demand a different form of teaming, namely improvisation. The coach (or lead musician) leads the process of the team through teaching technique and helping to keep the many key relationships in good working order. During the game however, the coach depends on the team, its members (especially its captain) and its processes for real-time decision making and execution.

Organizations and groups may predominantly play one game more than others or they may play a mix. Playing, hiring, leading, developing, planning, and coaching all look different depending on the game. Assembling the right team means carefully selecting individual and developing players to fit the game to be played.

On the river, it’s lots of autonomous activity as individuals navigate the rapids, often with only the loosest of coupling among the team of travelers. Then an emergency arises and its improv time as the team creates an ad hoc approach amidst the roar of the rapids to help a member in trouble. And at the end of the day, it’s orchestral as each person moves into a pre-assigned role to ready camp and prepare a meal.

What do you need from your team of employees? Do you need team marked by autonomy, control, or cooperation? You probably need all three. But which one do you need the most in order to reach the highest level of performance? Do you need individual performers to save the day, improvisational interdependence with its free-flowing movement, or do you need your employees to follow the script? You decide what’s best for your organization.

You need to be aware of what you need before you hire, before you improve your team, before you take the next step forward. (For more on teams and understanding the game, see Chapter 8 in Your Job Survival Guide.)