No one really knows how the word "team" broke into American business jargon. I have my theories. I have long believed that it all started with an article in an in-flight magazine on the NY- Washington shuttle. If we scratched a little bit deeper, I think we'd find that it was written by a freelancer who was long on deadline pressure and short on business experience.
For now that's just an academic point. As the lawyers say, you can't un-ring the bell.
My theory continues that the article was ripped from the magazine by a desperately bored CEO. When he got back to the office, he absent-mindedly handed it to his eager assistant, who announced "Project: Team" before lunch.
But that's just a theory.
What is known is that any group of people working in a business enterprise would soon be told they were a "team." It has to be true, because we have all seen the posters in the conference room and we went to the team building exercises and wore the polo shirts.
Still, if you surveyed most people in business today, I suspect you'd find that the concept of team is more sound effect than sound.
I worked for 3 years or so at a major hospital. We had thousands of employees--quite literally big enough to be a City under the Ohio Constitution. I didn't work on the front lines--the scrub- clad nurses used to call me a "suit" in the elevator--but whenever we attended the employee meetings we were told that we were all just part of one big team and we had a role to play.
There were many examples of teamwork, but I don't recall ever arriving or leaving feeling like I was part of a larger team.
And not for the reason you think. It had nothing to do with people being too mean, duplicitous, cruel, unstable, or forgetful to be good teammates. On the contrary, I worked with very good people there.
Even if, by chance, you did meet someone who was maladjusted, is that really any different from a basketball team? There's always the guy who won't pass the ball, real or metaphorical.
No, the answer to this riddle lies not in the players, but in the game. Our wishes aside, the world is not a hospitable place for true teams.
What's missing? You can start with the simple idea of victory. I know we saved people's lives, a showy slam dunk if ever there was one, but on the same day people died. People got healthier and people got sicker -- sometimes the same person on the same day.
Amidst all this, there would not be any moment where anyone (much less everyone) could feel like they won. I know it's true, because I never once high fived someone in the parking garage after work. No chest bumps. No spraying champagne.
Not only did our team never know whether it had won or not, we didn't even know what might constitute a win. A basketball team goes onto the floor knowing it has to accumulate events counted in ones, twos and threes, a luxury profoundly unknown to a business team.
Not only did we not share a common goal, each department had multiple goals; if you rolled them all up, the entire organization would literally have hundreds of them. Even if all those goals were 100% in concert with one another -- a mathematical feat the rough equivalent of winning the lottery every day for six months -- it would be too complex to generate teamwork.
Of course, they aren't 100 percent in concert. When they don't conflict directly, they compete for scarce resources, a zero sum moment for which there is no motivational poster.
The prospect of some good old fashioned intramural hardball reminds us that business competition also has no rules and no referees. I remember that one of my jobs was to get proposals signed by people moving up the organizational chain and ending with the President of the hospital, like working your way up the peg board that we had on the wall of our high school gym.
Signing my document was, for whatever reason, something VPs were loathe to do. And as my deadlines approached and I still had 3 layers of Vice Presidents to work my way through, I'd get angrier and angrier. Their hapless assistants tried to help, but their bosses were implacable.
How often did I wish that there were rules, that a zebra-striped referee would come into the room, blowing his whistle and call the VP for, well, something -- a 5-second violation, standing in the lane ("a 3-day" violation), "T" him up -- something!
Never happened. I was a powerless cog and they were free to act with impunity.
At least while they were still there. Unlike most basketball teams, who generally keep their coaches for a few years, our Vice Presidents changed places so often that I used to joke that we should keep the org chart on a whiteboard outside the cafeteria.
There was no official scorekeeper, either. I could go on, but it wouldn't prove anything. Without even these elements, competition in the real world is simply messier -- less precise, less clear, less purposeful than it is in sports. As competition goes, so goes the team built for it. The idea fades until it is nothing but a lumpy shape.
This gap -- the same gap which separates our youth from our adulthood -- is the gap that draws us to our passion for sport. We love sport -- and scream at the top of our lungs for our teams -- because they occupy a world of clarity that we miss.
When we attend a college basketball game and watch our team, we do it not because it reminds of real life, but because it doesn't. Dissonance is relevance. Much like TV and movies, if sports were too much like life we'd lose interest. The last thing we want is more reality.
The lesson here is two-way, though. Once we understand that we love sports for the absence they fill, we also understand that the best way for us to adapt to the real, adult world is to stop expecting it to be a sport. We have to embrace the ambiguity of our world -- be comfortable being uncomfortable -- and take down the motivational posters. The world is not a basketball game, any more than it is not a painting or an opera or a concerto.
Rather than trying to make the world into a sport, we'd be better off creating two discrete places, enjoying one and, seeing the other for what it is, making it work.
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