Why winning in sports might be a lousy template for business success

Sports metaphors are incredibly common in the world of business motivation. Probably even more common than military metaphors. We raise the bar, huddle, put on a full court press, try for the home run, and we use the winning sports team as a template for the winning management team.

At first glance, that makes sense. Team sports require, well, teamwork, as does business. A sports team that plays well together is much stronger than a simple sum of the individuals. That principle holds true in a corporate environment too. A team working well together is more multiplicative than additive. With that being the case, how can I say that sports metaphors are bad news? It comes down to the origin of purpose. It’s about why every one is there; what their foundational motivation is.

Success in team sports require much of the same recipe as does success in business. You need a common purpose. You need an understanding of what each teammate needs. You don’t necessarily need deep knowledge of everyone’s positions and jobs, but you need to know enough to help and understand all of them. Everyone has a place and must fill that place, and none of those places stand alone.

Everyone on a winning sports team is there for one purpose: to end the game with a higher score than the other team. Every member of the great team lives that purpose, and has for most of their life. Many of them have been handling the ball or bat since before they started school. Some as soon as they could sit up as a baby and reach out for the brightly colored round thing coming at them. By the time they reached high school, college, or the pros, they have all been living the same dream for a substantial portion of their life.

By the time a soccer player reaches high school, the serious ones are all thinking about playing college ball, perhaps even with a scholarship. In college, it’s the Olympics, the world cup, and a coveted spot on a pro team. They are all after that exact same goal, and have been since their formative years.

Those new freshman team members have all of the ingredients needed to form a winning team. A great coach can work with those ingredients because all of the individuals come into the team with the same goal. They all live, breath, eat, and sleep that goal. All they need is to have it tied together.

And right there, my friend, is where the metaphor falls flat in the business world. First, if you pick the wrong sport to anchor your story, someone’s going to think: “that’s not a real sport. My sport is the real sport.” Someone else, the clumsy nerd, is going to think: “great more glorification of the hot shot popular kids that made my life miserable back then.”

Your company doesn’t have a homogenous-thinking group of people that have held the same dream since potty training. Great sports teams do. You don’t have the same raw material. What you have is just about the opposite of what a sports coach has to work with. Different ingredients require a different formula. Look at what you’ve got:

  • At the age of six, Aaaa was dreaming of walking on the moon. But then, we stopped going to to moon, so they found a different career.
  • Bbbb mostly played in the mud a lot and drove their parents nuts with all of the laundry and ruined church clothes. Yet, in their head, they were creating giant hydroelectric dams and other massive public works.
  • Cccc wanted to be a great leader of soldiers, protecting the weak and saving the world for democracy.
  • Dddd wanted to be the next Joe Montana and win the Superbowl.
  • Eeee was lost and already starting to dabble in what would become a decade centered around creative ways to abuse drugs and alcohol.
  • Ffff couldn’t think about much more than a future family with happy spouse and kids, cars, a house, and relaxing vacations.
  • At five, Gggg was trading little used toys for slightly better ones with neighbor kids. Then came lemonade stands, paper routes and odd jobs up and down the street. Never any doubt that this one would grow up to be an entrepreneur.
  • Hhhh ran track, played basketball and baseball throughout most of K-12, settling on track in college. After not quite making the Olympic team, they became a fighter pilot and finally ended up in sales because the airlines weren’t hiring at the right time.
  • Iiii just followed the formula – grade school, middle school, high school, college, an MBA, and some lifeless job.

It’s quite unlikely that any of your management team was dreaming about middleware software as a service when they were five.

Unless you’re in one of the few overtly world-changing companies, it’s quite unlikely that even half of your management team is really passionate about the products or services that the company produces and delivers.

They may be passionate about creating a great user experience, but that can be done just about anywhere, as long as there’s enough money in the budget. They may be driven by quality, but that drive can be fulfilled in a lot of different companies.

No. You don’t have that common fundamental purpose so important to the sports team as a starting point. You don’t have a group of people that are driven by the same thing, and you can’t treat them as if they do. You’ve got to find and or build a different purpose, and you’ve got to understand that you may always have a few team members that aren’t motivated by what you really need them to be motivated by.

It’s easy to say that such people should just leave and go elsewhere. Ideally they will, and you’ll replace them with better fits. But, you can’t depend on it. It’s not practical to expect everyone that isn’t spot on with your purpose to quit or be fired. The real world doesn’t work that way.

You need to create a team building strategy that accommodates some crosses of purpose and some unproductive behavior. If your team building strategy requires that everyone come around and see and live by the common vision, it will very likely not live up to your goals.

You’ve got to find commonality in what drives every member of your team. And the purpose you derive from that needs to be robust enough to deal with some level of indifference. It can’t be dependent upon 100% buy-in. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you’ve got it that easy.

Perspective

If we’re the only life in the universe, does that mean we’re significant, or insignificant?

Are we just a mole on the back of the universe’s foot? Or, are we the actual purpose of the universe? Are we the seed, expected to spread out and explore and conquer the universe? Are we the last sentient residents of a now ashen universe, once full of life?

It’s quite unlikely that any of those questions will be answered within the lifespan of any of us currently alive. But it’s even less likely that we will stop trying to answer those questions.

NASA, not long ago, announced the discovery of a solar system, some 40 light-years away, harboring seven “Earth-like” planets. Three are currently thought to orbit in the habitable zone – where liquid water is likely to exist – not too close, nor too far from the sun to allow water to maintain a liquid state.

All things being equal, if life had arisen on one of those planets during the same time frame as on our Earth, and followed the same pattern of evolution and advancement as ours, we would have found them and they would have found us. Or, so it seems.

The problem is time. We think of the search for extraterrestrial life in terms of vast distances. To really understand the chances of finding any (or us being found), you also need to look at the universe in terms of its staggering duration.

Even at a mere 40 light-years away, finding each other wouldn’t be a sure thing. To illustrate that, let’s look at some numbers.

Michael Faraday created a primitive electric generator in 1831. This is an important date, because, even though, his electricity was running through wires, the act of generating electricity creates radio spectrum noise. It wouldn’t have been coherent radio signals, nor would they have been powerful enough to expect that the signals could have been detected anywhere on Earth, let alone, 40 light years away, but 1831 could be called the opening of the window of opportunity for discovery.

As of this writing, that’s 186 years ago. Out of the 100,000 years of humanity and 4.5 billion years that the Earth has been around, the window of possible discovery via electromagnetic means, has been less than 200 years. We’ve been potentially discoverable for a sixth of a percent humanity’s existence, and for 4.13 * 10-6% of the existence of the planet. Those are small windows of opportunity.

It gets even smaller if you consider a reasonable likelihood of discovery. Electric generation came 186 years ago. Morse code was first transmitted wirelessly 131 years ago. That’s when we started deliberately creating coherent radio signals. The first atomic bomb detonations in 1945 created gamma rays, which, if the Earth was pointed in the right direction, would have been easily detectable 40 light-years away. Really high powered AM radio transmissions started near that time, as well.

On the receiving end, radio astronomy began in the 1930s and we started looking for gamma rays of non-terrestrial origin in 1967. We’ve been looking for radio signals from space for 85 years, and gamma ray bursts for 50 years. Assuming a similar progression on a planet 40 light years away, our 85 years of searching would need to line up with their 131 years of transmitting wireless radio.

You might say that, if they evolved and developed faster than we did, they might have been searching their skies for hundreds, perhaps even thousands of years. Assuming no extinction level asteroid strikes, globally devastating nuclear wars, or climate destroying pollution cycles, our 131 years would need to fall into that few thousand years, out of billions of possible years, which is still pretty unlikely.

For us to have detected the signs of life (coherent radio or gamma rays) on one of these three of seven planets thought to have liquid water, the alignment of advancement would have to be incredibly convenient.

They would have to have advanced to the point of emitting those radiological signs of life, and we would have had to have been listening to the right area of space sometime within the last 85 years. 85 out of 4.5 billion.

That doesn’t help in terms of deciding if we are important, or not. But, it does help illustrate the difficulty in determining if we are alone or not.

My top ten predictions for the next decade

Not long ago, social speculators talked about how the younger generation grew up with computers, the Internet, and cell phones; that they have fully integrated this technology into their lives. I would maintain that today, it’s even more than that. We’re past the time when people integrate technology into their lives. Today, people are integrating themselves into the technology. For many in the millennial generation, their very identity has crossed over to the digital realm.

Years ago, you could tell just about everything about a person by spending some time with them. Their identity was contained within their being, and was anchored around the home, job, or school. Identity was clear, and rooted into a fixed location. Today, those roots are spread throughout the collective Internet. A good portion of a millennial’s personality is stationed out in that digital world.

The modern human doesn’t have an offline and an online personality. They have one personality that is partially stored in their physical being, and partially stored in the digital world. They are an early type of cyborg. The continuation, and acceleration, of this trend is my first prediction for the coming decade.

#1 Ten years from now, the post-millennial generation will have their personality so dispersed that it won’t be possible to know them exclusively offline. Their digital footprint will be as much an aspect of who they are as is their appearance, their voice, and their physical actions.

#2 Many people won’t even notice that #1 has happened. In the same sense that a blind person can’t see another person’s appearance, most people from prior generations simply won’t have the sensory ability to see this additional aspect of the post-millennial’s persona. The future is here and we didn’t notice.

#3 As with personality, described above, most of a person’s physical being will no longer be fixed to what we see as being “normal human.” Artificial limbs, and many internal organs, will be easily reproducible with 3D bio-mechanical personal-manufacturing.

#4 With the bio-prototyping will come body hacking. Third and fourth arms, exoskeletons, and similar modifications will be commonplace. Prosthesis, to replace missing original extremities, will have feeling and dexterity nearly as good as the original, and will come with custom fittings.

#5 The generation gap between these post-millennials and past generations will be more a canyon than a gap. It will be as though they have sight and sound, but we only have sound.

The “machine” isn’t taking over. It’s evolving us to become it

#6 Artificial humans won’t be sentient and thinking, but they will be designed such that most of them could easily pass the Turing test. They won’t be human, but if the designers want them to look it, many people won’t be able to identify them as non-human without a close examination.

#7 Tele-presence will be a big part of this too. People will be able use artificial sense and presence to essentially, be anywhere. These tele-presence bots may look conventionally human, mechanical, electronic, or not be visible at all. Spooky

#8 Uber, Air BnB, and companies like them will skyrocket for the next five years. After that, they’ll start a long slide down as the need to travel declines. With personas dispersed and intermingled online, travel will be much less of a thing. People won’t “be someplace.” They’ll be anywhere and everywhere. If they want to “physically” go someplace, instead of traveling and renting a car, they will be able to rent an artificial body wherever they want to be.

#9 Space travel will be commonplace, but not in the way we’ve traditionally thought of. With tele-presence and immersive virtual reality display devices, the experience will be almost as real as actually being out there.

#10 You can’t complain about it. We’re the people that made all this possible.

Duane Benson

Advice From the Fringes

For the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been no for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.” – Steve Jobs

That may have been literal for Jobs, or it may have been metaphor. We’ll never know and it doesn’t matter. By many standards, he was an unimaginable success. But… It’s not difficult to find stories of people he terrorized on his way, or huge mistakes he swept under the carpet. He stepped on people, and he left this world earlier than was necessary. He made his own path. His way of thinking fit his specific type of genius. If you don’t have his type of genius, his advice likely won’t work for you, and if you do have genius, you’ll make your own path.

I don’t really think that people like Steve Jobs are the right ones to be taking advice from, personally or professionally. Most of us don’t have what it takes to be a Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, or Bill Gates, nor do we need to have it. That type of person isn’t in the norm. Most of us wouldn’t be happy in their shoes. Those in that select group are on the fringes of humanity. They are very rare, whatever the subject or vocation, and will have their own way of getting through life. Advice from others of their ilk isn’t what drives them, a voice inside their heads does.

If today were my last day on earth, would I be doing what I’m doing now. No. Of course not. Think carefully about your last 24 hours. Would you want to be at a job, any job? Would you care to save money? Would you put food in your refrigerator? Would you pay for the gas you just put into your car? My guess is that you’d find one person or a group of friends to be with, and one thing to do. It would be a day of very singular purpose.

What if you found that you have a week to live? Would the answer be different? With a week, you could get a lot more done and see a lot more people. You’d pay for the gas so you wouldn’t end up spending two days of that week in jail. You’d think about food a bit, and either wash or buy some clothes.

How about a month, a year, a decade, a lifetime? With three months, you might be able to live off of credit cards, but beyond that, you’d need income – a job. Each successively longer time period would allow for, and require, more long-term thinking. Some of the long-term activities would not be all that pleasant, but as a part of a whole, they enable the pleasant. Life is an accumulation, an averaging. It’s not a single event. It’s a lot of events that add up to a whole. We all have a lifetime. We just don’t know how long that lifetime will be.

Some pieces of advice, like “work hard”, or “don’t fear failure, learn from it” are more or less universal. That’s because advice doesn’t work in a vacuum. It works within a specific set of conditions. We are all surrounded by hard work and moments of failure (well, all normal people are), so “work hard” and “don’t fear failure…” work for most people. Beyond that, the real secret is in yourself.

To follow advice from Elon Musk, with the aspiration of becoming him, you’ll have to put in the massive amount of work time he does, you’ll have to get his education, take on his attitude – become him in entirety. That’s not realistic for someone that just wants a better salary, a more fulfilling job, and a more rewarding life.

If I look at the whole of my life today, and see something I don’t like, I need to change or adjust. Whether it’s big change, or a few small tweaks really depends on personality. If big change typically ends in failure, try small adjustments, and vice versa.

I don’t buy into the philosophy of live everyday as if it’s your last. To live everyday as if it’s your last is to say that you can never have a down day. It’s to say that you can never make a mistake, to never invest in the future, to never do something without short-term gain. I say live everyday as if it’s a small part of a great work of art. Today is a brush stroke – a pixel for those like like to think in digital terms. It is one part, working towards the whole.