October is a good time to talk about teamwork, especially as it pertains to sports. Professional football and hockey are now in full swing, baseball is in the midst of the playoffs, and basketball, believe it or not, is already playing pre-season games.
And even if pro sports aren’t your thing, you probably have a son or daughter or niece or nephew playing youth soccer, volleyball or football right now. As for me, I’m coaching a pack of seven year old boys on a soccer team.
All of this raises a question that may seem simple at first glance: why is sports such a common, and effective, metaphor for teamwork? Many people would say that it’s because so many of us played youth sports. Then why not cub scout packs, or ballet companies, or marching bands? After all, those are basically teams, too. What makes sports so special?
Well, I think the answer has everything to do with the scoreboard. I believe the scoreboard is what makes an athletic contest compelling, and provides the context for teamwork.
A scoreboard provides players, coaches, officials and fans alike with the framework for why they should care about what is happening on the court or field. And it informs them about what needs to be done, in what period of time, and to what extent, in order for the team to succeed. Without a scoreboard, there is just too much room for ambiguity and interpretation about whether a team has succeeded, and what they need to do to get better next time.
Which is precisely why teams within organizations-starting at the top-need to do a better job of creating, and using, scoreboards to drive their actions. As obvious as all of this may seem, effective scoreboards aren’t really being used correctly by executive teams in many of the organizations I’ve encountered. Most of them are either putting too little information, or too much, on their scoreboard, leaving people confused about how to affect the outcome of the game, or overwhelmed about how to interpret what is going on around them.
Too Little Information
So many organizations rely on revenue or profitability or stock price as the primary gauges for the success of their team. While these are certainly the ultimate measure of a company’s performance, they are not particularly helpful in terms of day-to-day, or week-to-week decision making.
Relying on these metrics would be like a baseball team looking up at the scoreboard and seeing only one statistic – season standings. While tracking wins and losses is certainly critical for any team, it does not provide enough timely information about how any individual player can positively impact the near term performance of the organization. What is needed is more information, the kind that focuses, rallies and motivates people to adjust their behavior in a way that will give the team a better chance of winning.
Metrics like profitability, revenue and stock price don’t adequately inform, drive or motivate performance because they involve too many contributing factors, and require too much time to determine meaningful trends. This leads people to either over-react to what they’re seeing, or to get paralyzed as they see no connection between their short-term behavior and the long-term consequences of it.
Too Much Information
Many well-intentioned executive teams go in the opposite direction in their quest for scoreboard clarity. They track as many metrics as they can get their hands on (detailed product quality specifications, region by region sales forecasts, advertising response rates, employee turnover), in the hope that they will leave no stone unturned. But this only overwhelms employees with statistics that are difficult to digest and interpret in a meaningful way. Ultimately, they start to tune out that data, leaving them with little context for their actions.
Consider a football team glancing at the scoreboard and trying to wade through everything from first downs and turnovers to penalty yards and player-by-player yardage statistics. As interesting as that data might be to a fan or sports writer, or even a coach with four hours to spare doing post-game analysis, it would be next to useless for a coach or player on the field looking for information about what play to call next or whether they should call timeout.
Sports scoreboards contain just enough information to help people on the field or court make informed decisions about how they can increase the odds of winning the game. This almost always includes a few simple metrics like the time remaining in the game, the number of timeouts the team has at its disposal, and of course, the score itself.
Like different industries, different sports have a few unique items on their scoreboards. Baseball, for instance, has strikes, balls and outs instead of time. Football has the down and yardage for a first down. Basketball tracks team fouls, and hockey displays penalty time. In each sport, however, there are only a handful of key categories. Dozens and dozens of other interesting statistics never find their way onto the scoreboard. They would only cloud the decision-making ability of coaches and players. Instead, they are left to analysts and planners for another time and place when that information might actually be helpful.
What is the right scoreboard for you? That will depend somewhat on the size of your organization as well as your industry. But whatever it is, it should be designed expressly to guide the actions of the company’s leaders. That means the scoreboard will most likely contain between two and seven items that correspond to a period of time that is within your company’s foreseeable and actionable horizon. Finally, the scoreboard should also be easily understandable by people deeper in the organization. That is, of course, if you want them to be focused around what really matters, and motivated to make a difference.