Stop Comparing Team Collaboration in Complex Situations with Sports

The team sport analogy has been used to represent team collaboration for so long that it has become part of our narrative about ‘teamwork’ today without question.  But let’s challenge that now. Why? Because in a team sport you can see what’s happening, everyone knows the rules, and you get penalised if you don’t play by them.  This is not how it works inside the complex workplace where it’s difficult to see what’s happening, the rules can be ambiguous and people can get away with all sorts of ‘anti-team’ behaviours without consequence. So let’s just stop comparing sports with team collaboration.

It’s difficult to see what’s happening inside organizations – you can see exactly what’s happening in team sports

With increasing levels of complexity, diversity, and change in most organizations today, alignment is needed. People need a shared reality on what the strategy is and how it relates to their roles and work. But organizations are full of intangible concepts that are difficult to align on.

  • A tangible development is a new building, a leadership appointment, or a document that has been produced: something you can directly observe.
  • An intangible development is the vision, a trend that is showing up but not evidenced, an idea about how others see things: these are concepts or ideas that show up but have no evidence. People form constructs about these things by trying to transfer or interpret meaning from words and signals.

If you were to look at the transference of meaning between people from a risk perspective, it would come out as ‘high’, with several layers in the process.


Six layers of meaning transfer


It’s often difficult to see when people’s perceptions don’t match up about such developments and their relevance.  This is misalignment and much of it goes unnoticed because people haven’t got the time or the means to stop and discover the gaps.

The rules in organizations are ambiguous – but the rules in sports are clear

Beyond the letter of the law, you could say that the rules of an organization sit in its culture: ‘the way things work’ according to habits as examples i.e.

  • This team starts meetings promptly
  • We pay attention to detail
  • Putting the customer first is important to us.

These rules can vary from one part of the organization to another, driven by local and legacy influence.  And there is a huge amount of room to wiggle in and around those ‘rules’ if people want to subvert them.  People are cunning, they are controlled by their unconscious minds, and they have deeply rooted motivations that will drive all manner of creative solutions to achieve them – for the good of the organization or not.  Everyone knows that what matters, in so far as playing by the rules is concerned, that only what is visible matters.

People can get away with all sorts of ‘anti-team’ behaviours in organizations – but that’s not the case in team sports

What we call the ‘dark side of alignment’ describes behaviours that create misalignment.  These are intended or unintended, consciously or unconsciously created alignment gaps driven by coping strategies or conflicting interests.  For example, acting on fear-based behaviours (fear of being seen as negligent or incompetent, fear of being excluded, fear of conflict); spreading disinformation, hiding information or insights; seeking personal advancement; attempting to protect people.  This is where much of Patrick Lencioni’s work on team dysfunction comes in. There’s a lot that people can get away with, without penalty.


The sports analogy does move people away from the idea of the lone hero and towards group collaboration, but things have moved on. Perhaps a more fitting analogy for team collaboration today would be in the health of a human body: an ecosystem of multiple critical parts where effectiveness (health) is an ongoing process. The parts need to be aligned, they need to work together, and support is needed.  Sometimes they need external diagnosis and intervention, wherein some issues are visible but others are not. So, let’s just stop comparing sports with team collaboration in the complex and dynamic workplace because it’s misleading.


Mirror Mirror is a diagnostic tool that identifies and measures cognitive and behavioural alignment gaps between people in teams. It does this to surface the assumptions, misunderstandings and conflicting interpretations that can undermine progress. By comparing how people see their world at work, the common ground and differences become clear. This data forms the basis of a dialogue session to address the gaps, safely and constructively.