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Is Baseball Really A Team Sport?


Driving home from work in St. Louis, I pass Busch Stadium, home of the World Champion St. Louis Cardinals. Now that baseball season is in full swing, I often look down from the raised highway onto a sea of red jerseyed fans. With my new book Group Genius about to reach the bookstores, I asked myself, what lessons does baseball offer to business teams?

Business has always been built on sports metaphors. "Step up to the plate," "playing hardball," and "pinch hitter" are just a few taken from baseball. And business today is more team-focused than ever before, with corporations everywhere moving to collaborative team cultures; today, "teamwork" is the watchword for business. Even office furniture companies like Steelcase and Herman Miller have ditched the cubicles and designed new scootable furniture; if they're right, the office of the future won't look like Dilbert's cubicle farm.

The best model for today's innovative teams is an improvising group like a jazz quartet or a Chicago improv theater group. A baseball team doesn't look like an improvising group, and frankly, doesn't look much like a business team either. The reason is that in baseball, each team member's contributions are relatively independent. As Pete Rose once said, "Baseball is a team game, but nine men who reach their individual goals make a nice team." It's rare that more than one player is involved in a play. More than just about any other team sport, the overall performance of the team is additive.

Instead, basketball is the right metaphor for today's innovative businesses. (Although if you're outside of the United States, you can think of soccer, which is just as improvisational.) Basketball is one of the most improvised and team-oriented of all sports; the five members of a basketball team interact in an interdependent way that's a lot like jazz. You see this especially in pick-up games, because everything that slows down the professional game has been taken away -- there are no free throws in streetball, for example.

In basketball and in jazz, each player's action has an immediate effect on what can happen next. From second to second, the team's performance emerges from a chain reaction of individual acts. So much of what makes jazz great is the unique chemistry among individual players; there's no way that you could simply add up the quality of the bassist, drummer, pianist, and sax player, and predict what their group would sound like. Basketball players interact in a fluid, rapidly unfolding manner, and that's the way the most innovative businesses work today.

I'm proud that St. Louis is the world champion, but although baseball might be a team sport, It's the wrong metaphor for business innovation.