Changing the Sports Metaphors

We’ve all heard them, the sports clichés so often used as metaphors for business success, metaphors for teamwork, commitment, extra effort. They prompt us to think about putting together a talented “team” that can “execute” well. Such metaphors can help us grasp important concepts and relationships, but it recently occurred to me that they can also be very limiting.

On several occasions, when I’ve spoken about the importance of allowing people to improvise in business, I’ve been challenged with sports metaphors. The argument has gone something like, “Yeah, but you can’t have everyone going off in their own direction. It’s like a football team; they need to be following the play.” My critics have insisted that, “Folks need rules to follow, just like on a basketball court or a soccer field.”

I quickly clarify that I’m not suggesting there’s no need for rules or control and direction. But then I challenge my audience to think about what’s really happening in a sports contest. Yes, players need to follow the rules of the game and know the plays that coordinate everyone’s efforts, but that’s not enough to win…in sports or in business. The successful implementation of those plays requires a tremendous amount of improvisation.

The quarterback must read the defense…sometimes resulting in a last minute change of play. Then, from the moment the ball is snapped, each player must effectively respond to the actions of the opposing team in order to fulfill his assignment. Linemen must position themselves to block and they succeed not by finding some predetermined spot on the field but by being in the correct position in relation to opposing players. As a pass play unfolds, the quarterback must choose the most appropriate receiver. The receiver has a pattern to follow but successfully catching the ball requires countless subtle calculations and adjustments by both the quarterback and the receiver.

The same sort of continual adjustments and readjustments, both physical and mental, are made by the batter who successfully gets a hit. His swing may be powerful and his form perfect but it’s useless if it doesn’t connect with the ball as pitched. A basketball player must determine moment by moment whether to make a lay-up or attempt a three-pointer, or pass the ball, perhaps high, perhaps low. Even greater flexibility is required on defense where players must constantly react and adjust to the actions of their opponents.

That’s all improvisation. Improvisation is not an alternative to discipline and plays, it’s what makes the plays successful (and salvages the bad ones). We all know this. Those players who best improvise are universally considered to be the most talented and exciting to watch. They’re the ones with a competitive edge (to borrow another cliché).

The same holds true in business, but that’s a metaphor that too many business people haven’t fully grasped. Are you encouraging your people to improvise or insisting that they strictly follow the play book? The latter approach may make you feel more in control but it won’t lead you to victory.

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