When I was growing up, ultimate (originally known as ultimate frisbee) had not yet been invented. While we played with frisbees, it was mainly just a lot of tossing them around. Since then, the sport has developed and highly skilled players and teams compete worldwide.
I've had a forced sabbatical from playing soccer here in Melbourne (no one plays during the summer apparently), but have been lucky to be invited to join a local co-ed division three ultimate team. It's been great fun to play a sport which in which the rules are self-enforced, i.e., without referees, and where the "spirit of the game" is the dominant culture.
Nonethless, there remains a role for a team leader, often a player-coach, and in this case we are blessed to have Michelle Phillips, a world class player, as ours. Off the field, she and I have traded stories about leadership, and I've also had a chance to watch her skills in that regard during games and her post-game advisories to the team. The latest one struck me as having lessons well beyond the playing field. Here's an excerpt:
There's a tendency in teams (whether sporting or otherwise) to try to 'fix' everything, to try to have the strategy perfect, to try to get everything absolutely right.
It's not possible. More importantly, trying to do this is actually detrimental to the overall performance of a team. Let's have a look at why, and at what we can do instead.
When we try to correct every non-perfect action out on field, we crowd our minds with more information than we can process. What that looks like is multiple voices in the circle, talking about strategic points while we're on the line, and tacking extra pieces of information onto the main message. Doing this means that not only do we not remember all the little things we've been told to do, but we forget the most important things that we started with.
There's a direct parallel between these points and about achieving process improvement in hospitals and other organizations. Improvement in efficiency, quality, safety, and customer satisfaction occurs one small step at a time, within an overall strategy. If you try to change too many things at once, the effort usually fails, and because you've changed too many things, you don't know how to analyze the cause of the failure.
Now, let's get back to Michelle's summary as she discusses a leadership (and the followship) issue:
A leader's job is not to fix everything. A leader's job is to filter all the information they receive, decide what is most important for the team, and direct the focus there. If you're leading (and we all do, at different times) you need to be able to give your team one clear set of directions out of the hundreds of possible actions that could be taken. If you've passed information onto a leader and they haven't acted on it, realise that they have made a decision not that it isn't valuable, or true, but that it isn't the message that the team needs in that moment. Trust that they are storing it away, and when the time is right it will be packaged up and delivered.
Finally, we return to the relative importance of strategy versus implementation:
And let me tell you a secret. It's way less about the strategy than we think.
If it was all about strategy, the underdogs would never win. If it was all about strategy, team sport results would be far more predictable than they are. If it was all about strategy, the state of your athletes wouldn't matter - only the state of your coach.
Games are won by the team that controls the mood.
I don't think people think much about this concept of mood in a hospital or an industrial or service organization, but it is key. We might use another word, like "morale." Having now visited thousands of places, I can usually tell within 15 minutes whether a place is a true learning organization--one described by my late friend and colleague Donald Schön (1973), as one that is “capable of bringing about its own transformation." You can see it in the faces and demeanor of staff as they walk down the corridors. You can feel it in how they interact with one another on the front line. Call it mood, morale, or a shared sense of purpose and mutual support. I described this in my book Goal Play!
The girls who play soccer in our town’s league in Eastern Massachusetts are among the luckiest kids in the world. They get to go out and play a beautiful game with their friends in a safe environment with terrific coaches and parents who support them. But there is an additional bit of magic that occurs during a game.
As the girls play, they unconsciously adapt to one another’s strengths and weaknesses, creating a seamless web of teamwork. As a coach, when you see this happen, all you can do is smile. You know you had something to do with it, but you also know that something has happened among the girls themselves. It is a marvelous thing. They will remember it all their lives, but they may not entirely understand what they are remembering.
They will think their fond memories of the season had something to do with friendships or other social relationships or new skills acquired or the team’s exceptional record. But there is something even more important that made the season so memorable. It is an elemental statement about the human condition: We are born to work and play together in teams. Many people do not get to experience that sense of ensemble, which requires giving enough of ourselves to let the filaments connect. That the girls discover it for themselves is very, very special. They are, indeed, the luckiest kids in the world, and we are likewise blessed in being able to share this time with them.