You will already have the teams in place. Some of you may have been transferred between a number of them already – although possibly without the lavish signing-on fee. There will be official colours and the ‘club’ magazine: the more cutting edge may already have the supporters’ pages on Facebook and the VIP appearances for gala dinners. Many will pursue more traditional pursuits: smiling ‘players’ photographed in the local paper doing good works in the community. The sport/business analogy is a potent one, and very popular. Just remember that you aren’t actually Man Utd. There are some fine lessons to transfer – and some coarse differences to keep in mind too.

There’s many a sporting personality who has made the transition from an eye-catching performance on track, field or (especially) TV. (Go on, name five stellar lacrosse players: there’ll be as much awesome skill and competitive intensity on display as in any other sport, but rather fewer cameras or column inches. England, Scotland and Wales all compete in the World Lacrosse Championships, and England have finished in the top 6 at the last four events. But fame? Glory? …).

This isn’t in itself a bad thing: a grasp of how capturing attention in one sphere allows you to divert that attention to another shows an understanding of attention economics (or, in Heat! parlance, sleb-power). The fly in the ointment (or should it be liniment?) is the small matter of credibility. (For a number of blog posts on why business and sport aren’t the same thing at all, try one of our admired bloggers, Stephen Billing.) While the sport to business analogy holds water in a lot of ways, how many team sports can you name where all the teams in the league are deliberately trying to play different versions of the same game? And how many businesses allow expensively acquired talents to ‘sit on the bench’ observing the action? Or have a five-year plan as straightforward as ‘get this multi-coloured ball in that net as often as possible’? Or where performance only really matters for 90 minutes a week for about 60% of the year and the rest is a rehearsal? If business had that kind of training to performance ratio, just think what we might be capable of. (That distant rumble, by the way, is the sound of thousands of cost management accountants falling off their perches …)

Some sports may have become big business – rather than being healthy activity for participants, a source of pleasure for fans, and an outlet of emotion for the spectators – but the analogy leaks as much water as it holds. The high public profile and the start power of some players makes it an easy metaphor – a testosterone-boosted version of the potency of cheap music – but some helpful caveats escape the attention of many who draw it slightly too often.

The sporting analogy can, frankly, get up a fella’s nose. And, importantly, up a girl’s nose too. Lucy Kellaway, a Financial Times journalist, awards prizes for ‘management guff’ every year. This year’s article announcing the gallant recipients included the following extract (free registration required to access whole article:

One of the main pillars of jargon has always been metaphor, both sporting and mixed. Last month, a young man with an MBA said to me: “We should just hang round the hoop.” I wasn’t sure what he meant; I was sure he deserved the prize.”

Or have a look at About.com’s forum when they discussed Poll Question: Are sports analogies appropriate tools for business training?even those ‘jocks’ who grasp that they’re potentially recreating the locker room in the office can overlook the points that a) some women don’t appreciate that much, and b) actually, some men don’t like it that much either.

This was point that had obviously been impressed on Kevin McManus, writing for Industrial Engineer back in 2003. I’m not going to draw a cricket fielding analogy with his argument, but when your second paragraph includes:

[…] I have been coached over the years to avoid using such analogies in the business world, primarily because they are not suitable for a diverse audience. In other words, some women (along with men who don’t pay attention to sports) do not want to hear sports analogies, because they cannot relate to them and in turn struggle to see the importance of the comparison.”

I’d say it’s a good idea if your fourth paragraph doesn’t start with:

I am personally as obsessed with sports as I am with continuous improvement in the business world.”

There was a lingering suspicion that the next nine paragraphs, which had many points to commend them, might have lost exactly that audience that he’d recognised a difficulty in reaching at the outset.

Almost as long ago (2004), Paul Sloan was writing for Leader Values, when his article Break the Rules pinpointed another flaw:

Sport has great attributes in terms of endeavour, teamwork and training but it is a very poor metaphor for business in one important respect – innovation. This is because in sport there are strict rules that cannot be broken without penalty, whereas in business most of the rules can be broken. Radical innovation means contradicting convention and inventing an entirely new game.”

Let’s illustrate that with an example. Over 400 metres (the standard length for a drag racing track as well as a popular track and field event), a small girl in a drag racer would need only nerves of steel and a firm grip on the steering wheel to outstrip either the male world record holder (Michael Jackson, 43.18 seconds) or his female counterpart (Marita Koch, 47.60 seconds). For either Jackson or Koch to surpass the drag racing record over the same distance – 3.59 seconds – they would need more than Lucozade, pep talks and a new team song. They would need both the car and the parachute braking system to be ratified by the International Association of Athletics Federations.

Then there’s the skills debate. Being better at it than other people, or acquiring a formidable technical arsenal, is lauded in sport. Ally that with skilful teamplay, and the world – or the World Cup – should be at your feet. Well, not so fast. Think of the Dutch national football team, and the beauty of their notion of totaalvoetbal (total football – using not just the team but the playing space creatively and collectively): oodles of talent, charm to overflow whatever vessel you put it in (until the 2008 World Cup final at least). And no World Cup for the mantlepiece. Back in the 1970s it seemed they might reinvent not just the playing but the spirit of the game, but for all their skill the future of football may have turned out to be bright – but it wasn’t Oranje. (For more on the history, psychology, geography, culture and much more of Dutch footie, read David Winner’s Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football – quite possibly the most interesting book about sport to date, although my partly-Dutch heritage may have tinted my reading-specs.)

But I think sport has one great lesson to teach business. (It has, of course, several – see our review of Matthew Syed’s Bounce where issues such as talent management, motivation, reward and recognition, incentivisation all link to learning opportunities from track and field – but there’s one I think deserves highlighting.) That lesson is the power of coaching. Where business supervises, manages and – from time to time – trains, sport coaches. On an on-going basis, following victory as well as failure: there is always another game and it must always be prepared for. And remember, in business there’s no such thing as a time-out, extra time or a closed season. Or even a referee to appeal to. Game on, everyone …

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