What I learned from watching the Toronto Raptors this season! 

I watch a lot of basketball. I have been following the local NBA team quite closely since 2006/7. I was spoiled my first year as the team overachieved in a weak conference winning their division. And though a first round exit confirmed their junior status amidst the league talent pool, there was a plucky sense of hope and optimism around the team. Sadly none of that would be sustained nor built on over the next six years. From the 2007/8 season onto the 2012/13 season the Toronto Raptors were an example of what can go wrong with teams from a business management perspective and a professional team sport perspective. For six seasons the team waded through various injuries, poor signings, regression/lack of talent, questionable coaching, varying levels of player work ethic, and an inability to jell achieving basement dweller status. Three coaches in six years and no consistent starting five would spell management and project doom for any endeavor be it of business or basketball. 

The 2013/4 season started with a down hill slide that many thought would set in motion the dismantling of the team from top to bottom. A key trade kicked off the blow up. But then something happened – the trade turned out to be an addition by subtraction. In sports (#andperhapslife) the mantra is – “winning takes care of everything” – and that is what they did. 

Within a month it looked as if the ship was being put back to right. Plans to tank (purposely lose to get a high draft pick for future benefits) were placed on hold and an attitude of “let’s wait and see” was taken by executive management and fans alike. What transpired from December to May was a demonstration of the key elements to great sports teams that hold great insights for business and education. Great teams require competence, confidence, commitment, challenge, and chemistry to produce great work. The team that has the highest levels of each usually rises to the top of the podium – and the org chart. 

Competence - peoples got mad skills or they don’t 
Individual members must possess the knowledge assets and technical skills required for the tasks. You can do it or you can’t. Poor quality of skills leads to poor work. We can’t fake execution and if we do the whole team suffers. 

Competence must also be an organisational/group philosophy. All positions great and small must be seen to require the highest levels of talent. Second tier talent yields second tier results. Investment in continuous skill development for individuals and teams should be a core principle of success. 

Competence must be diverse. Having equally talented individuals is necessary for success but it is possible that a diversity of talent is of greater value to a team. The mixing of varying skill sets allows for a wide range of intellectual and physical resources to be available for the entire team to draw from. This also provides the opportunity for each member to believe they are making a unique contribution to the overall success of a project. 

Confidence – you think you can or you can’t 
Team confidence is the sum total of individual confidence. Confidence is usually built on an awareness of our skill set and combined with a reward for the execution of our skill set. As you see the hard work be rewarded this invigorates more hard work to increase rewards. The more rewards for effort the more confidence in the execution of effort. When we know something is working we will keep doing it and superior teams keep adapting or refining what they are doing based on the challenge at hand. 

As success breeds greater confidence, frustration or failure breeds a loss of confidence. Whether it be the loss of confidence of an individual or the entire team, performance will be negatively influenced as confidence diminishes. It is important to remember that it is easy to be confident when sailing on clear and friendly seas but true confidence is knowing one can keep the ship afloat when the storm hits. The captain to the crew hand must believe.

It is important to note most organisations are hierarchical and confidence in ability must transcend layers. If upper management does not believe in the teams executing ideas for them, or the teams have confidence in those who lead them  then it is hard to create true belief in a team goal.

Commitment - we are all in or we ain’t

When thinking about team commitment most people first think about all for one one for all. Give it all you got. 110%. It’s all been said and there are many articles on committing to something available to read. There are two aspects to commitment worthy of special mention. Commitment is a coin needed to purchase success. One side of that coin is sacrifice and the other is patience.

Behind all the hard work and effort is sacrifice. Sacrificing individual goals for the team goal is always recognised as a key to a successful endeavour. Individuals have different motivations for participation but different motivations should still yield the same commitment to tasks. To get things done and achieve elite level success beyond giving it our all, an understanding of what one will be giving up is needed. Countless professionals talk about the personal sacrifices made to achieve individual and team success.

Another aspect of commitment that is often overlooked is patience. Commitment requires not being in a rush to see results nor measuring immediate success by victories or losses alone. Committment is believing in the accumulative affect of right action or perfect practice over time. Teams must be given the time to negotiate their way, and this takes time.

Challengeevery dog needs a bone

Without a challenge to focus its energy a team is a rudderless ship.  A challenge is simply the common goal a collection of individuals agree to pursue together. The reasons for having that goal may be diverse but the goal unites. Without a common goal for everyone to sink their teeth into a team is a collection of individuals waiting for something to do.

It is also important for the goal to be the right level of intensity. A team not sufficiently challenged will feel complacent and a team given an unrealistic goal may become disillusioned. Whether it is an NBA trophy or a quarterly sales goal the challenge must match the team.

Chemistry - things will jell or they won’t 

Where would any good idea be without an intangible. When it comes to the ledger sheet on teams, chemistry is the misc column. You never know how much it is going to be or the final impact on costs but you know it is real and must be considered. Team chemistry is one of the latest things pundits and professionals are trying to figure out how to quantify and stimulate. The MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference recently spent a lot of talk time exploring the idea. One of the key elements to chemistry seems to be how well each player makes those around them better. The me to we of performance. 

Chemistry is the enzyme that facilitates the process for the coming together of competence, confidence, commitment and challenge. For some teams that catalyst to greatness is never present. For some it comes together in breath-taking beauty. It is important to note as well that chemistry is not everyone sitting around the campfire singing songs of peace and joy. The chemistry of opposites holds as much value as the chemistry of the like minded. In the end anything written on chemistry comes up short as we still have not figured it out. Chemistry is always the intangible when human beings try to get together for a common purpose.

Next season I will probably watch as much basketball as last. But as the 2014/15 seasons starts the expectations that this years success breeds will have many dreaming of another word brought to you by the letter “c”- championship.