Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Team Talk - Partnerships Vs Sports

by Ken Caplan

We’ve done some thinking recently about working in teams. Not a lot, but just enough to make us pause for thought. It seems there is discussion in all the leadership and management books about the importance of teams. In fact, much of BPD’s work is related to working in teams – partnerships after all are about finding ways of working that rely on “horizontal accountability” and “appreciating the contributions of all”. These two concepts are inextricably linked – creating an environment where there are no hierarchies and there is clear recognition that goals cannot be achieved without everyone’s contribution. On the other hand, some may say that hierarchies create greater clarity, and some contributions are always deemed more important than others (particularly by the financiers). 

“Team working” in partnerships (at least for the delivery of water and sanitation for the poor) is notoriously difficult. Both the constraints and the variables are too numerous. In recent BPD team discussions, we quickly came to the conclusion that the only place we’d really seen teams genuinely work for any length of time was in sports. After all, in sports, there is a common and immediate goal (to beat the opposing team). In partnerships the targets may be held in common but the goals (and their implications) are not always understood in the same way. In sports, the rules are clear and the roles of each player from the third baseman to the goalie are understood. In partnerships, this clarity is often missing on both counts. In sports, there is usually a referee or umpire. In partnerships, we watch each other to make sure we are each contributing what we committed to providing, but there are any number of risks to blowing the whistle on our partners. In sports, there is usually a clear time frame – 90 minutes, 7 innings or 4 quarters – after which you know who won (or at least who played the better game). Partnerships may have clear windows of opportunity – like between election cycles or in the dry season – but getting everything done within this period usually proves impossible. One thing in common with sports though, is that there is always a coach, a quarterback, a pitcher or whoever calling the shots – so maybe there isn’t such equality after all?

There is an interesting book called Impro by Nick Johnstone, which teaches actors how to act. Much of the guidance is about getting actors to understand the “status transactions” that occur in the scenes they are playing. In any situation, the drama coach is trying to get the actors to understand where each character fits in the scene – is he or she high status or low status? Or high relative to one character but low relative to another character? Or even more confusingly is he or she high status but needing to raise the status of those around him or her? Or low status but keen to puff himself up to seem higher? Confused yet?

The point is that team or partnership building is a complicated business. As with acting, it usually involves understanding “status transactions” that involve competition between players. This manifests itself in how each partner positions himself or herself vis-à-vis both his presumed but also desired status in the relationship, and these can change over time. Even within teams we are constantly repositioning ourselves depending on each new set of circumstances that arises. 

Over the years, our guidance for how to make partnerships work has seemingly become more and more sophisticated, but in fact, it usually still relates to the old faithful inter-related skills of empathy, a sense of fair play, an appreciation of what each player brings to the table, moves that are fit for purpose etc… Maybe even these can be boiled down to one skill – listening. Somehow you can’t do the other things without it.