This weekend I spent a good bit of time watching Friday Night Lights, the television series about high school football in rural Texas.  The show is packed with life lessons and inspiring stories, but the thing that I enjoy the most is the team camaraderie among the high school football players, the Dillon Panthers.  Those players are there for each other on and off the field and have a very strong bond that allows them to accomplish truly great things together.

Not to wax nostalgic, but I remember having that same feeling during my days playing college lacrosse.  From the locker room to the classroom to the playing field, my teammates and I were inseparable.  We trusted each other deeply and knew we could count on each other to do our respective jobs.

We all knew with 100% certainty that everyone on the team was fully committed to the team and would do whatever it took to beat our opponents.  We counted on each other as teammates and we all delivered.  The feeling is almost magical – together we felt invincible.  It was probably the most motivating feeling I’ve ever felt.

With all of these memories flooding back, it begs the question: How can that same feeling of team camaraderie be recreated in the office environment?  The feeling where everyone in the company is part of a team and all departments work together to overcome a common opponent.

I’ve often found that, rather than playing as one team against a common opponent outside the company, sometimes we tend to find opponents inside our own companies to play against.  Departments will start competing against each other for resources and authority, pointing fingers and focusing their competitive attention inward, on their own colleagues.  I believe that the first step to creating team camaraderie in the office environment is ensuring that competitive attention is directed externally rather than internally.

So, how do we do that?

Thinking back to my sports days, during any competition we always had two important elements:

1)   A Scoreboard
2)   An Opponent

The Scoreboard

There is nothing more key to the concept of competition than a scoreboard.  It shows you the critical information of how you’re doing compared to your opponent, whether you are behind and need to rally, or ahead and need to protect your lead.  But more than that, a scoreboard is a reminder that you are in a competition.  At the end of the day there will be winners and losers and if you want to win, you need to work harder, think faster and execute better than your opponent.

The Opponent

Who are you playing against? This may sound obvious, but you need to know who your opponent is. It’s good to know the name of the team (or company) that you’re competing against, however it’s far better to know the names of the individual players.  The week before every lacrosse game our coaches always gave us a comprehensive scouting report to take home.  The scouting report contained stats on the team we were about to play that weekend, but also the names, skills and tendencies of each of that team’s players.  I played defense, and before every game I knew the name of the offensive player I was matched up against, I knew where he had played in high school, I knew how much experience he had in his current position, whether he played more with his left hand or right hand, where he liked to shoot the ball from, etc.  I memorized all of his habits and before each game when we lined up to shake hands, I looked my opponent square in the eye and knew exactly who I had to beat that day.

One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that humans tend to naturally find an opponent.  No matter what we’re doing, or where we are, there is always someone we’re playing against. It’s important to take measure to make sure the opponent that we find is the right opponent and that we get to know that opponent deeply.

In past companies I’ve seen that no amount of org change or org structure modification can overcome the feeling of not being on the same team, but after you’ve created a strong sense of team camaraderie, there is nothing that you can’t accomplish together.

The Power of Team Camaraderie and Finding the Right Opponent
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  • Note the problem in attribution. In a team game, each player has a role and they (and their peers) can evaluate how well they’re doing.

    In a business, attribution to the “score” e.g. income is rather challenging. It’s not clear to many people how others contributed, or if they exceeded expectations, etc.

    I think that’s a bigger problem.

  • Very true – always hard to know how much impact we each have on the bottom line. I feel like the recent uptick in attention to metrics (KPIs) and metrics dashboards has somewhat helped, but it certainly hasn’t been a silver bullet.

  • Yeah, because while focusing on data is good it doesn’t solve the attribution problem (same problem that you have in online advertising!)

    Also, be wary of – and this is a paraphrase of two misquotes “You can’t manage what you don’t measure, but you only manage what you measure.”

    Or Deming’s original quote was good too:

    “The most important figures that one needs for management are unknown or unknowable, but successful management must nevertheless take account of them.”

    My favorite example is IT departments. It’s so common as to be a joke – an employee asks for a bigger monitor/dual monitors/etc and it’s refused. Or more memory in a laptop. These things are crazy cheap, e.g.

    Best of all: a corporation rolls out a new IT system (e.g. Lotus Notes) which fulfills all the feature checkboxes at the corporate level. But it’s a pain to use.

    Who accounts for the cost of that lost productivity? Or decreased employee satisfaction? Perhaps higher employee turnover? Less buy in to corporate priorities? Decreased employee responsiveness, as each task takes more time/effort — and people have a finite amount of willpower. Exhaust it with awkward systems, and employees won’t be as productive.

    It’s cute that the more time I spend in business, the more I see things as accounting problems.

  • RF

    One element you’re overlooking is company culture, which typically “rolls downhill” from senior management. Culture and values are endogenous in nature and, thus, difficult to change (barring a wholesale change in management team). Employees tend to mimic their managers and leaders, so if the latter don’t emphasize camaraderie then it’s unlikely to manifest itself more broadly.

  • Simon Dexter

    I see a special meaning in the idea of having an opponent. More than once I was told that space exploration, nuclear technology and arms race were all products of Cold War. Strong belief in opponent’s superiority enabled these accomplishments at least in part. Great point!

  • Nice! I like it. Thanks Simon!

  • Thanks for reading and commenting Rod! I like the point about company culture and I agree that it’s important. Whenever I think about company culture I always think about Tony Hsieh’s book Delivering Happiness where he advocates for the executive role “Chief Culture Officer.” When I read the book it made perfect sense to me to have a C level executive devoted full time to culture (it’s definitely super important) – but after reading the book I’ve vacillated back and forth. Perhaps such a role makes sense in a customer service focused company that relies on every employee embodying the true spirit of the company (e.g. Zappos) – but it might be a bit overkill in other industries. What do you think?

  • RF

    I agree that a dedicated CCO is on the extreme end — Zappos falls into this category (in a good way), as evidenced by its recent shift to a holocratic org design. In my experience, the CEO is the de facto CCO, along with other key leaders, and employees typically mimic their values and behaviors. The founder / CEO of one very successful but not well-known company, Asurion, sums up the culture in the simple motto “Divine Discontent” — employees strive for perfection and do not celebrate success too much because there’s always something to improve. And in the book, Repeatability, the authors show that companies with clear nonnegotiables — well-defined, shared core principles and beliefs linking to frontline behaviors — drives superior business performance. In other words, culture is a key component of strategy and is important regardless of industry or business model.