Pickup Team Pointers

There is a tremendous amount of both scholarly and popular writing about teams in the business section of any library or bookstore. But I recently got a lesson in team dynamics when I least expected it — watching pickup basketball at the gym.

The participants in a pickup game vary widely in size, skill, aggressiveness and about every other way you could think to classify them. But more to the point, the team makeup changes on a regular basis. Recently, I ended up with an open hour at the last minute and, without planning to do so, spent that hour watching pickup basketball in a gym where four games were going at all times — and there were more players wanting to get into the game than there were spots on the teams.

Pretty much every principle of teams I have studied in works by business writers like Jim Collins, Pat Lencioni and Jon Katzenbach could be observed on the court. But there were other, more subtle patterns that are not often in the big model. They were easy to see and relate to business teams I have coached over the last two decades.

Individual skills and weaknesses are obvious, quickly identified and managed on a team that is focused on their outcome.

When a new team formed, doubtless some of the players were well known to each other, and a couple seemed to be newer. But within a very few minutes, and without any discussion about it, it was easy to see the team’s tactics change to use what they were learning about their new temporary teammates.

The player who took a shot each and every time he got his hands on the ball, never passed and almost never scored started getting marginalized by his teammates in short order. There was no team meeting or counseling session. They just stopped passing the ball to him.

Meanwhile, the less aggressive and vocal player with a talent for 3-pointers often benefited from a timely screen. People figure out who is on the team pretty quickly and adjust accordingly.

Active integration of new members preserves pace and productivity.

One game of teenage boys was very instructive. Mid-game, the parents of two boys (on opposite teams) pulled them to leave the gym, despite the amount of time on the clock still left in the game. Each team picked up a new player from a pool of those waiting. One of the teams took about 30 seconds to talk about who would cover who or where, while the other shot baskets and impatiently waited. It was not long before both teams were back in stride, but the team that actively engaged in integrating its “new guy” hit stride first and was four baskets up before the other team started scoring regularly again.

No amount of blame, finger-pointing or impatience is going to improve a team’s performance.

Tempers flare in pickup games. Some team members are fiercely competitive, and less skilled players can be the target of displeasure and aggression. But since each team is allowed the same number of players, a weaker player who is actively derided or blamed will become a more active detriment.

In one instance, a player became so discouraged about the derision of his poor play that he simply ran up and down the court, ceasing to be a player who could take a clearing pass or could position himself in the way of a drive down the middle. In that way, a weaker player who could contribute somewhat became an empty and unused asset, providing a one-player advantage to the other team.

Teams are dynamic. They constantly respond to change whether on the basketball court or in a business. Agility, focus, clear communications, team culture and mutual accountability all matter. Perhaps the most critical characteristic of truly great teams — researched in depth by Jon Katzenbach, author of “The Wisdom of Teams” — is that wildly successful teams are deeply invested in not only the stated purpose of the team, but in the growth and success of all the team’s members, regardless of role.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, March 25, 2019.