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Sport metaphors for business teams

By PJ STEVENS Published 17th Jun 2014
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You hear many sports quotes and metaphors applied in business training sessions. Sometimes these are appropriate and resonate, aiding learning. Many people enjoy and relate to sport and using the right quote at the right time can be engaging.

However, many people question the relevance of doing this and whether there is a viable connection between sport and business. I believe that there is a connection but I also feel that this connection is often made in a tenuous way because people don't fully understand the variances involved.

This links to another controversial idea. We are constantly told that teamwork is the answer. We must build and manage effective teams to cover all tasks. The fact of the matter is that some tasks require individual autonomy, and some tasks require teams of people working autonomously. In some cases prescribed teamwork slows and interferes with the successful achievement of the goal.

Teamwork is not always the answer.

In both business and sport leaders must balance three variables; individual autonomy (individual performance), hierarchical control (the structure of the business and chain of command) and teamwork (cooperation).

In business different situations require focus on different variables. Sometimes this focus must be primarily on one of them, more often they all work in concert and change by the moment. This is why effective leadership requires a great deal of skill and judgement.

Different sports also primarily focus on one of these variables. Thus cricket is biased towards individual performance, football towards hierarchical control and basketball to cooperation. Note that I say biased; in all cases there is an element of crossover.

When using sports metaphors for business it is worth considering this to make the most useful point for your specific client. A sales team which requires individuals to meet specific targets so that the team wins will learn more from cricket than from football. An individually autonomous sales team might be confused by the football pitch set up; are they an attacker or a defender, who is in goal?

Equally a team which needs to orchestrate itself, moving as one around their goal, may learn more from observing basketball. The obvious example would be a team running a restaurant.

Metaphors are powerful communication devices. Human beings enjoy them and retain more of what they learn through them than through most other forms of training. They do need to be used skillfully and with a level of understanding, because if they are just another churned out story or quote you risk losing some of the depth available. 

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