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Team and management models

Last week I read a fascinating article written by Peter Drucker about U.S. companies and teamwork. His conclusion is that we "still haven't gotten it right."

Drucker presented three different team models. The first one, he said, is akin to a baseball team. Every individual has their part and as long as they perform well individually, it is assumed that the organization will perform well. So for example, if you have enough .300 hitters and 20 game winners, you're pretty much all but guaranteed to be in the World Series.

According to Drucker, this is how most businesses governed themselves until IBM (NYSE: IBM) and then the Japanese decided to go to a football-based model, where, like an orchestra, the organization is managed off a game plan or musical score. Detroit kicked and screamed about moving to this model, but on the brink of total collapse, had no choice but to adopt it. The result created a turnaround in the auto industry.

The third model Drucker likens to doubles tennis. One person may have a predominate role in any particular play and the other person plays support. Then vice versa.

Perhaps I had nothing else better to do, but I really started to think about what Drucker said. While I am not fully understanding of his tennis team model, I certainly think I can add some insight to the discussion of team management evolution.

At the beginning of the century, as we were beginning to develop the manufacturing process, American sports consisted of boxing, track and field, swimming and bicycle racing. Then eventually came the first team sport -- baseball. While all of the athletes on this team are certainly "team members," the team as a whole rises or falls based on individual performance, separate and apart from that of their teammates. Moreover, these were start and stop events. The swimmer did their laps, the golfers had their swings and the pitcher needed to get three outs in an inning.

As our industries began to mature, so did our sporting events. Football, basketball and volleyball were added to the scene. If you have played any one of these three sports you know how interdependent your success is. You can be the greatest quarterback in the world but you better have somebody to throw to. Fortunately for the San Francisco 49ers, Rice and Montana had each other. The value of the superstar athlete can be wasted depending on the supporting cast.

Today's business seems to me to be more like a hockey game. Individual athletic skill is significantly enhanced by the equipment worn. In all other sports, we can only go as fast as our natural abilities will carry us. Not so in hockey, where players go at extremely fast speeds. Moreover, they do so continuously. No time outs. Lines jump in and out as necessary, but the action never stops. This seems to me a much more appropriate analogy for where we are today.

Drucker states a truism about team size that has been with us all along. Very simply, it is difficult to manage teams once they grow beyond seven in size. Most military organizations stop their first level of patrol at this size. Anthropologist will tell you that hunter/gatherer groups tended to top out at about this size. The fact is, trying to relate to more than seven people at a time is a difficult proposition for even the brightest of people. Tom Peters once again reinforced this in the book "Search of Excellence," claiming that any division of an organization shouldn't exceed 50 people (approximately 7 x 7). Not surprisingly, a hockey team has seven players in the mix at any one time.

So, assuming now that what I just stated makes sense, what do we do with it? First of all, as Drucker points out, the baseball model is very destructive unless you have people who have been playing their positions for a long time and the rules of the game have remained the same. Even with the size and speed of today's athletes the game remains pretty much the same.

If you are going to play a football game, you better have a well-scripted game plan where everybody understands how one part of the puzzle affects the other. Where the ultimate accolades and rewards are truly team based. And if you're ready to play hockey, realize there are no starts and stops. That team play is continuous, extremely fast and as the Great One, Wayne Gretzky says, the goal is to "skate to where the puck is going, not where it is."

Phin is an attorney and president of the Employer Advisors Network Inc. He is the author of "Lawsuit Free!: How To Prevent Employee Lawsuits; Building Powerful Employment Relationships!" and "Victims, Villains and Heroes: Managing Emotions in the Workplace."

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