Even in the relatively simple case of five-person groups, the formal network is critical to team functioning. In the give-and-take of larger organizations, things get more complicated. We can get a fresh perspective and sharpen our thinking about structure in groups by looking beyond work organizations. Making the familiar strange often helps the strange become familiar. Team sports, among the most popular pastimes around the world, offer a helpful analogy to clarify how teamwork varies depending on the tasks at hand. Every competition calls for its own unique patterns of interaction. Because of this, unique team structures are required for different sports. Social architecture is thus remarkably different for baseball, football, and basketball.
Exhibit 5.5. All-Channel Network.
As baseball player Pete Rose once noted, “Baseball is a team game, but nine men who meet their individual goals make a nice team” (Keidel, 1984, p. 8). In baseball, as in cricket and other bat-and-ball games, a team is a loosely integrated confederacy. Individual efforts are mostly independent, seldom involving more than two or three players at a time. Particularly on defense, players are separated from one another by significant distance. The loose connections minimize the need for synchronization among the various positions. The pitcher and catcher must each know what the other is going to do, and at times, infielders must anticipate how a teammate will act. Managers’ decisions are mostly tactical, normally involving individual substitutions or actions. Managers come and go without seriously disrupting the team’s play. Players can transfer from one team to another with relative ease. A newcomer can do the job without major retuning. John Updike summed it up well: “Of all the team sports, baseball, with its graceful intermittence of action, its immense and tranquil field sparsely salted with poised men in white, its dispassionate mathematics, seemed to be best suited to accommodate, and be ornamented by, a loner. It is an essentially lonely game” (Keidel, 1984, pp. 14–15).
Baseball is poles apart from American football. Unlike baseball players, football players perform in close proximity. Linemen and offensive backs hear, see, and often touch one another. Each play involves every player on the field. Efforts are sequentially linked in a prearranged plan. The actions of linemen pave the way for the movement of backs; a defensive team’s field position becomes the starting point for the offense, and vice versa. In the transition from offense to defense, specialty platoons play a pivotal role. The efforts of individual players are not independent but instead are tightly coordinated. George Allen, former coach of the Washington Redskins, put it this way: “A football team is a lot like a machine. It’s made up of parts. If one part doesn’t work, one player pulling against you and not doing his job, the whole machine fails” (Keidel, 1984, p. 9).
Because of the tight connections among parts, a football team must be well integrated, mainly through planning and top-down control. The primary units are the offensive, defensive, and specialty platoons, each with its own coordinator. Under the direction of the head coach, the team uses scouting reports and other surveillance to develop a strategy or game plan in advance. During the game, strategic decisions are typically made by the head coach. Tactical decisions are made by assistants or by designated players on either offense or defense (Keidel, 1984).
A football team’s tight-knit character makes it tougher to swap players from one team to another. Irv Cross, of the Philadelphia Eagles, once remarked, “An Eagles player could never make an easy transition to the Dallas Cowboys; the system and philosophies are just too different” (Keidel, 1984, p. 15). Unlike baseball, football requires intricate strategy and tightly meshed execution.
Basketball players perform in even closer proximity to one another than football players. In quick, rapidly moving transitions, offense becomes defense—with the same players. The efforts of individuals are highly reciprocal; each player depends on the performance of others. Each may be involved with any of the other four. Anyone can handle the ball or attempt to score.
Basketball is much like improvisational jazz. Teams require a high level of spontaneous, mutual adjustment. Everyone is on the move, often in an emerging pattern rather than a predetermined course. A successful basketball season depends heavily on a flowing relationship among team members who read and anticipate one another’s moves. Players who play together a long time develop a sense of what their teammates will do. A team of newcomers experiences difficulty in adjusting to individual predispositions or quirks. Keidel (1984) notes that coaches, who sit or roam the sidelines, serve as integrators. Their periodic interventions reinforce team cohesion, helping players coordinate laterally on the move. Unlike baseball teams, basketball teams cannot function as a collection of individual stars. Unlike football, basketball has no platoons. It is wholly a harmonized group effort.
A study of Duke University’s successful women’s basketball team in 2000 documented the importance of group interdependence and cohesion. The team won because players could anticipate the actions of others. The individual “I” deferred to the collective “we.” Passing to a teammate was valued as highly as making the shot. Basketball is “fast, physically close, and crowded, 20 arms and legs in motion, up, down, across, in the air. The better the team, the more precise the passing into lanes that appear blocked with bodies” (Lubans, 2001, p. 1).
DETERMINANTS OF SUCCESSFUL TEAMWORK
In sports and elsewhere, structural profiles of successful teams at work depend on the game—on what a team is trying to do. Keidel (1984) suggests several important questions in designing an appropriate structure:
• What is the nature and degree of dealings among individuals?
• What is the spatial distribution of unit members?
• Given a group’s objectives and constraints, where does authority reside?
• How is coordination achieved?
• Which word best describes the required structure: conglomerate, mechanistic, or organic?
• What sports expression metaphorically captures the task of management: filling out the line-up card, preparing the game plan, or influencing the game’s flow?
Appropriate team structures can vary, even within the same organization. For example, a senior research manager in a pharmaceutical firm observed a structural progression in discovering and developing a new drug: “The process moves through three distinct stages. It’s like going from baseball to football to basketball” (Keidel, 1984, p. 11). In basic research, individual scientists work independently to develop a body of knowledge. As in baseball, individual labors are the norm. Once identified, a promising drug passes from developmental chemists to pharmacy researchers to toxicologists. If the drug receives preliminary federal approval, it moves to clinical researchers for experimental tests. These sequential relationships are reminiscent of play sequences in football. In the final stage (“new drug application”) physicians, statisticians, pharmacists, pharmacologists, toxicologists, and chemists work closely and reciprocally to win final approval from the Food and Drug Administration. Their efforts resemble the closely linked and flowing patterns of a basketball team (Keidel, 1984).
Jan Haynes, executive vice president of FzioMed, a California developer of new biomedical approaches to preventing scar tissue in surgical procedures, echoes the pharmaceutical executive’s observations. But she adds, “In sports a game lasts only a short period of time. In our business, each game goes on for months, even years. It more closely resembles cricket. A single game can go on for days and still end in a draw. Our product has been in the trial stage for several years and now we have to shift the team to a new phase; working with the FDA to get final approval, which could take a long time.” Ron Haynes, the firm’s chairman, points out how difficult it is to change his leadership style as the rules of the game change: “I moved from manager to owner of an expansion team where we have several games being played simultaneously in the same stadium. If our leadership can’t shift quickly from one to another, our operation won’t get the job done right.” Doing the right job requires a structure or structures well suited to what an organization is trying to accomplish.