The performance of an individual is much less important than you think it is. The way we measure, assess, evaluate and reward individual performance is no longer relevant in the modern workplace. We need to look at different behaviours and skills and instead consider the performance of the team.
Why? To illustrate my point, let’s talk about sport for a moment.
Three years ago I started CrossFit. CrossFit is a mix of high intensity interval training, gymnastics and weight lifting and its aim is to promote general fitness. In what feels like a previous lifetime, I have a background of playing team handball at an Olympic level, and what I have particularly noticed is the difference in how we assess and improve performance in an individual compared to a team sport.
At my first CrossFit competition I realised how important it was to be well-rounded as an athlete; an athlete who is skilled in every single movement that is part of CrossFit, an athlete with no gaps. So, I learned how to focus on my weaknesses, working hard on eliminating them and being coached to be as well rounded as I can possibly be. I roughly spend 80% of my time working on my weaknesses and only 20% on my strengths.
Why? Because I’m all there is. I’m on my own - I win all by myself and lose all by myself. In an individual sport the best strategy is to optimise my whole athletic self.
Now contrast that with team handball or, in fact, any team sport.
In case you don’t know handball, watch this short video. It’s Europe’s 2nd most popular sport after soccer and is a fast-paced, contact sport where the team scoring the most goals wins.
Over the course of a long career as a handball player, that involved playing at the Olympics and several world cups, I have played many average games where we still won. There were also games where I played amazingly well and we lost. In a team sport the best strategy is to forget about the individual and to optimise the team.
When optimising the team we don’t look for a bunch of well-rounded players; we aim for a mix of exceptional world-class skills that are distributed across all players. The idea is that each player contributes to team performance with their own individual strengths and that the combination of all players creates a winning formula. The key to success is to assess and improve team performance.
For the individual the best strategy is to focus on a few key skills in which they can become world class. Of course, there is a threshold for entry - if you can’t pass and throw a ball you won’t even be allowed on the practice field! But team players know that focusing on everything will leave them being average at most things. Therefore, for a team athlete the ratio of working on weaknesses to strengths is closer to 20% to 80%.
So, unlike Crossfit athletes handball players will aim for being the best they can be in their areas of strength and seek to develop an average level of proficiency in all others. They will spend less time working on their areas of weakness and rely on other players to specialise in those areas.
OK, sports talk over … what does this mean for business?
We have long realised that the best work in our world of complexity and constantly shifting demands is done in teams - but we still focus on individual performance and treat and reward people as individuals.
It’s time we created an environment where we regard work as a team sport.
Here is what we need to do:
- Define and enforce a base level threshold. There are some core skills and behaviours that are foundational for anyone in the workplace. If you don’t know the basics of collaboration and interacting with people or don’t have the desire and ability to learn you won’t be able to contribute to team performance. As Bob Sutton already proved “brilliant assholes” are toxic and expensive. We need to make sure that those basic behaviours are present when we recruit new people and react swiftly if not.
- Stop “managing” individual performance. I recently spoke in Hamburg at an Agile People HR meetup and someone asked “How do you manage performance?” To that person I want to say, it’s a moot point, really. Individual performance is irrelevant. You can’t win (or lose) as an individual. So let’s please stop wasting everyone’s time trying to measure and manage individual performance.
- Optimise for team performance.Individuals don’t deliver customer outcomes, teams do. The only unit of work is the team, so let’s optimise that. And don’t even think of getting all the “A-players” and putting them into one team. Instead find the best combinations of people to create optimal teams for your organisation. The fastest and most efficient way to create high-performance teams is to allow people to self-select. After all, you have hired people who are capable and skilled and have the desire and ability to develop their craft - so all that’s needed is to trust them to know which combination of people and skills they will need to excel.
- Coach to strength. Development and competency plans where we ask people to spend most of their time improving their weaknesses have the wrong focus. Weaknesses are not “opportunities for improvement”. They are areas that - once a basic level is achieved - should be supplemented by someone else on the team. So, let’s focus on people’s talents and strengths and support them in developing their own unique combinations of skills. This will make them world-class, sought-after team members.
- Say good-bye to the focus on individuals. I have heard individual athletes talk about how much they dislike team sports and how much they’d hate being dependent on other people to succeed. In sports they have a choice, in our current work environment we don’t. You don’t want to be dependent on other people? Well, I hate to bring it to you but you are!
Teams are a vital part of any successful business. A high performing, or high functioning team is one where success is recognised as a collaborative effort.
So in business, be a team athlete. Keep the CrossFit mindset for after hours.
Tags: Sports, performance, handball, CrossFit, high-performance, teams.