At TeamSnap, we are discussing being “one team.” This is a powerful concept, and it has me wondering, “what kind of team are we?”

While reading business books on team shapes, I have encountered functional silos, matrix organizations, and division structures. These terms lack context for the layperson—and also, they are a bit drab.

I am the CTO of a sports software company. Sports are full of teams. Can we use metaphor to compare the way companies organize today—or better yet, how they can organize tomorrow? I think so. In the remainder of this blog post, I will share how we can look at our company structures through the lens of sports metaphors.

The Track & Field Team

Track & Field teams are teams made of individual athletes competing in a wide variety of events. Some of the teammates compete in multiple events; however, there are large numbers of specialists. The individual is looking to win by themselves. The combined wins of all the individuals are what cause the whole team to win. There are some micro teams inside this team; you cannot run the 4x400 with one person. This individual nature does not necessarily mean there is no team spirit. This structure does allow for highly skilled individuals to “win” while the team performs poorly.

I feel this is a typical structure for large organizations. You might consider a country’s Olympic team to be the meta version of this, perhaps analogous to “the Enterprise.”

The Rugby Team

I find Rugby teams fascinating. While there are “positions,” what position you play is malleable. Forwards wear jerseys 1-8, backs wear jerseys 9-15, and substitutes wear jerseys 16-23. Need to fill in a gap mid-game on either side, send in a replacement. Want to change positions between—or during—games, change your jersey. The team adjusts to suit the opponent and the current game situation. While players have specialties, often focusing on one or two positions, if they need help somewhere, they change their jersey and enter the fray.

This team structure, to me, is what start-ups embody. Sure, we all came from different specialties and backgrounds, but if something needs doing, we put that jersey on and do the best job you can for that position. Never underestimate what a small team of utility players can accomplish when pushed to their competitive limits.

The Hockey Team

Hockey Teams are the slightly more mature sibling to the Rugby team—I know, no one has ever thought of Hockey players as “mature.” There are better-defined positions. The game is rough, but there is a structure to it. Specialists, like the goalie, are a constant. While they may have a substitute or come off of the ice based on the situation, not everyone on the team can play the position. The idea of squads that stay together is also a defining factor. The lines consistently act as a small team. However, these teams are not a permanent fixture. They can change game to game. Hockey also introduces specialized teams based on the current game situation in penalty killing squads and power play squads. Your teammate can have a bad day and commit a foul, leaving the game for a short time. You do not look to blame them. They cannot hide, their name is up on the Jumbotron for all to see—also, the referee is biased. You support them, pick up the slack, and welcome them back when the penalty is over.

Hockey Teams, to me, are a natural progression when leaving start-up mode. If you are growing, they are likely not sustainable as more and more specialists join the team. I feel companies often jump over this phase. We leap straight to the Track & Field style team missing an opportunity to iterate to our next type.

The Football Team

There are three distinguishing characteristics of a football team in my view:

  1. Highly specialized individual roles on the field simultaneously
  2. Multiple mini-teams each focused on a different aspect of the game
  3. Despite the first and second characteristics, football teams are a single team playing a single game that wins together.

I view the offense as the Product Development team, a group of specialists working in coordination to move the ball downfield, step-by-step, iteration by iteration. While the quarterback—or PM—may be the focal point of the offense, the quarterback cannot succeed alone, no matter how visionary or gifted they are.

The defense is the combination of Sales and Marketing. Their job is to protect the team from the competition while also position the Product to score. While it is often said, the best defense is a good offense. If your defense is getting rolled over by the competition, it is unlikely your offense can keep up.

The better the defense, the easier time the offense has. The defense can lower the offense’s effort by reducing the points they have to score while also positioning the offense in an advantageous scoring position on the field. Likewise, your special teams—accounting, px, etc.—are there to get the job done. While not the focal point, they are critical to a successful team.

Football teams are, in my opinion, strongly linked to the concept of Product Leadership. A company focused on winning through their Product would do well to look towards football teams due to their cohesive, multidisciplinary structure.

So What?

So, what should we take away from all that? Here is what I think. I think too many teams spend time acting like a Track & Field team. This structure is ill-suited to the ideals of Product Leadership. I feel more companies should be aligning themselves with their Product. I think Football is the best metaphor we have for what a Product Development team can be.

Of course, this is just one person who prefers the chaotic ballet of Rugby teams. I would greatly appreciate feedback on this topic. Where do you think your team has been? Where do you want to go? What other possibilities should we all consider?

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