Why do teams win? What do we learn from winning teams?

Just attended 6 Gaelic Football and Hurling finals over the last 10 days or so. Five of the teams I supported were successful – so an unusually high success rate! And of course we are often told we learn more from the games we lose (and mistakes we make) than from winning games. But I was thinking – what did we learn from winning these games?

Firstly – winning beats losing. There is no ‘could have, should have, would have’ chat after the game. And, in general, the things that went wrong are put to one side and the focus tends to be on what went right.

Why did five of these teams win?

The first team was well coached, had set achievable targets for itself early in the season, had sorted out its defence and had realistic expectations of its own players (and their abilities). The coaches were meticulous in their preparation – including their analysis of strengths and weaknesses of the opposition. On the day the team made a fast start and played with hunger and determination throughout the match.

The second team to win consisted of a teams of winners. They had lots of ability and had been undefeated in Championship matches for a number of  years. The opposition played well but may have lacked some vital element of self belief. The opposition started well and had opportunities to establish a decent lead – but squandered these.  The winning team started poorly but never appeared to doubt their own ability to close out the deal. And they did so comprehensively in the end.

The third team won by one point in extra time. They played a good game – against another team of approx. equal ability and drive/ hunger. Match came down to a couple of missed opportunities for one team and a couple of opportunities taken by the other team. Would not be difficult to summarise by saying ‘they got the breaks’.

The fourth team won because they had more ability, more experience and generally shut out the up and coming opposition. Their pre-match preparation was good and after a slow start for 5-10 minutes they gradually assumed control in the match.  As the match progressed they began to exploit some weaknesses in the opposition team.

The fifth team was too strong for the opposition and won out easily.  They were faster, stronger, more skillful and, in particular, had more consistently good players across the park that the opposition.  

The sixth team lost.  This team was probably expected to win – just about.  They led well at half time.  Something happened after half time – a real momentum swing.  They seemed to lose their way for 15 minutes of the second half.  Over the game they conceded three goals – and, as many say, goals win matches.  The winning team exploited the momentum swing and just about held out in the end.

So what did I learn from watching six finals?

  • Winning and losing teams learned lots about themselves and the opposition in each game
  • Individual ability of team members makes huge difference
  • Attitude is very important
  • Experience is an asset
  • Good preparation (ambition/ focus, training, tactics, knowledge of the opposition) can make a major difference
  • Luck makes a difference in tight matches
  • Understanding limitations of your own team is important in setting out to win a match
  • Winning teams believe in themselves and their ability to win – even when faced by adversity
  • In many matches the top players on either side neutralise each other – the battle often gets decided by the weaker players – the team with the stronger weaker players usually exploits this advantage to win
  • Beware of momentum swings – over the 6 games there were plenty of changes in momentum – when teams trailing were afforded the opportunity to change things around.  The challenge having survived to the momentum swing opportunity is to take it and kick on.  Really only saw this happen in the sixth final.

Interestingly no real reference to individual leadership, per se, in these match wins.  Yes – good players were required to perform – but impact of individual leadership not as great as people may expect.

Certainly analysis is applicable to lots of work and life situations – why do teams succeed/ fail? Perhaps the importance of strong weaker players is overlooked in many situations – as also is having realistic expectations of the team. Other factors such as preparation and common goals/ sense of purpose were as expected.

 

What makes teams pull through?

Three recent football matches again had me thinking about what we are often looking for in work.

Munster won a Heineken Cup quarterfinal  match against the odds away to Harlequins.  Leinster won against Munser in Thomond Park.  And last night I watched an underage GAA football team turn at half time to play into a strong wind, go behind and fight back to win by a couple of points.

And sport is full of these types of circumstances.  But what attracts me is that sense of togetherness, common purpose, that enables a team to overcome the odds.  Yes it requires some of the top players to prove their worth but operating in a team sense – providing leadership, shouldering responsibility, encouraging others.  And lesser players (and least lesser in the public eye) are equally important. Tactics are important and luck will also play its part.  And support from spectators should not be underestimated – although all three games were won playing away from home i.e. with relatively small, but loyal, support teams.

The recent Masters golf tournament was a similar event – even if the teams are down to the player and the trusted caddy.  But there were lessons – in terms of how both players attacked the 18th and attacked the play off holes.  Technique, commitment, trust between caddy and player and finally, I think, one being a little luckier than the other.  But all congratulations to both Angel Cabrera, the runner up, and to Adam Scott, the winner.

The purpose of this post is not to replace the tomes written previously about application of sports principles in business, etc.  But I see so many business failures which can be tracked to the absence of that team spirit – or a gradual fading of the spirit .  All of the teams mentioned have their bad days – but they do understand that feeling of pulling together, leaders encouraging, supporters working in the background, trust and respect and going the extra yard for common gain.  And the successful teams have it in more depth and more often.  And when the luck goes against them they come out fighting again.

case study – social networking in travel industry

Contributed to a case study in the Innovation section (pp42 – 44, Experts’ Advice – P44) of  today’s Irish Times  – looking at how a ski adventure company could use social networking to market their business.

Text of my advice in the case study:

BlackRun: Online for off piste

This is a typical 2009 scenario in Irish business – someone from the Facebook generation (‘gen f’) bringing ideas about social networking to the owners. The concerns are classic: fad or not, geeky or not? Simone is right – at least half BackRun’s target audience is social network friendly. So it’s a ‘no brainer’ – need to get on board. The good news: with some upfront planning this can be achieved, without swamping the team.

BlackRun needs a basic web site, optimised for search – integrated with a blog (could use software such as WordPress). Ruth & Simone need to set targets for blog posting frequency e.g. 3 times per week. Team members should be profiled in the blog and encouraged to post. Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook accounts should be established – using auto notification of postings on the BlackRun blog. Worthwhile Twitter accounts should be identified and ‘followed’. BlackRun should aim to tweat daily – ask questions, answer queries, use hashtags. Facebook advertising should be considered.

There are great tools available to assist in managing online presence e.g. google webmaster, WordPress utilities, Tweetdeck, Nexus (Facebook). BlackRun needs to avail of these.

Finally, management should commit to measuring the effectivess of these initiatives on a weekly basis.

Barry O’Gorman consults in social networking, collaboration and semantic web.