Here is what sports can teach you about being a good manager

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David2016 is a sporty year: I’ve picked up cycling, the Euro 2016 has ended little over a month ago and the world is already focusing on Rio. The Euro 2016 was full of surprises and I am sure the Olympics also has some up its sleeves during the coming weeks. Watching teams and athletes exceeding expectations and paying attention to my body’s signals when cycling made me think about what organisations could learn from sporting endavours. Here are three you may want to think about for your own team:

1. Creating environments in which it is safe to fail

The Euro 2016, just like many other tournaments, was not short of drama. We saw players missing important shots and even penalties. However, coaches sent them back to the pitch again and again on the understanding that failure is part of the game. If players felt that every little mistake would be heavily penalised, then they would be less inclined to take the measured risks necessary to ensure an interesting game and the prospect of success.

So what can team leaders learn from this? Well, we all need tolerance of failure within our teams. We need to create environments in which people feel able to innovate and try out new ways of working even if it does not work out in the end. Employees need to be aware that taking measured risks will not cost their career if and when they encounter challenges (and inevitably failures) along the way. One great example of this is Indian conglomerate Tata’s ‘Dare to Try’ award. This award recognises sincere and audacious attempts to create a major innovation that failed to get the desired results. It is a way of recognising that innovation brings with it the possibility of great successes, but also of opportunities to learn from failure.

The question you may want to think about is how do you, the manager, react when your team makes a mistake? Are people in your team and organisation supported in trying new ways of working?

This is a theme that comes out in many of the Jams we run with organisations. These facilitated, online conversations provide people with the opportunity to discuss their more pressing challenges and it is interesting to see tolerance of failure raised as an important characteristic of any innovative organisations. People need support in testing out new ideas.

2. Analysing performance in excruciating detail

Footballers, basketball players and swimmers constantly analyse their performance: During the match, in the breaks and after the final whistle. Even I note down my time, distance and speed after cycling. This helps us understand the factors that drive individual and team performance, and uncover any areas that need improvement. It also helps us understand individual needs. For example, in football, goalkeepers and strikers have a different diet. Why? A striker runs and sweats more than a goalkeeper, which means strikers need more energy[1] to live up to fans’ expectations. Teams collect huge amounts of data to monitor players’ development and strengths.

What does this teach you about performance? Semi-annual performance reviews will not do the job in a competitive, high-pressure environment.[2] Instead you may want to think about how often you review a completed project or a proposal that you have won or lost? The extent to which you analyse individual performance within the team after a project is completed, or whether you move on to the next project without actually understanding what happened and why?

3. Embracing agility

While sports teams have great icons, it does not mean they are the only players who can score. Take Ronaldo’s injury in the Euro 2016 final against France as an example, but I could also mention Kenya’s Jemima Sumgong’s truly amazing recovery during the London Marathon. She fell over, hit her head, and despite all this, managed to win the gold in the end. Portugal’s recovery was not less remarkable either: Nani took over as captain and Queresma was substituted for Ronaldo. Thanks to their agility, the players were able to change strategy less than half an hour into the game and take home the trophy.

Building an agile team is undoubtedly one of the toughest challenges managers face. In project teams, members may change frequently, or leaders may be called away to other roles or responsibilities and yet the team must continue to perform. This means it’s important to consider what contingency plans are in place if a key person were to be unavailable.

For inspiration from the business world, we can turn to music streaming service, Spotify. Spotify’s teams, or ‘squads’ as they call themselves, are good examples. Dr. Jeff Sutherland, inventor of the Scrum software development process explained that Spotify is able to compete with Google and Amazon in terms of performance by hiring agile coaches, employing seamless coordination and mastering the art of removing redundant steps from the project.[3]

How agile is your team and what can you do to ensure your team performs when circumstances change?

At the Hot Spots Movement we are always looking for inspiration from other industries – sports, Opera, dance – to see what we can learn. Football and other team sports are by no means perfect in terms of managing performance, but perhaps we can take something from the sport’s ability to create a safe-to-fail environment, its commitment to reviewing team performance in detail and its agility.

If you would like to learn more, or have a great example to share, get in touch at david@hotspotsmovement.com.

[1] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/active/11807652/Footballers-food-what-do-Premier-League-stars-eat-every-day.html

[2] Future of Work Research Consotrium. http://www.fowlab.com

[3] http://labs.openviewpartners.com/agile-done-right-agile-gone-wrong/#.V6SaD5MrJGN

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