To Understand Organizations, Watch Sports

By March 9, 2023ISDose


From yacht racing to hockey, organized sports have much to teach business leaders about the way companies should operate.

We live in a world of organizations, from our birth in hospitals until our burial by funeral homes. In between, we’re educated, employed, entertained, and exasperated by organizations. But how well do we really understand them, especially since they vary so enormously? Amazon is not Apple, hospitals are not factories, hockey is not football.

Even thinking just about restaurants, they exhibit different ways of delivering the same service. A corner diner revolves around a single person, its owner. A fast-food franchise functions almost as if on automatic pilot. A gourmet dining establishment relies on the honed skills of all its staff, especially the chefs. And a catered event provides a customized service, one-off, for each client.

I’ve labeled the various forms of organization style the Personal Enterprise, the Programmed Machine, the Professional Assembly and the Project Pioneer.

In the natural world, compare a troop of monkeys with the alpha male at its head, a flock of geese flying in formation, ants scurrying around doing their own thing together, and a family of beavers building a dam. But clearest of all may be how these four forms are found in team sports.

1. Yacht Racing: The Personal Enterprise

The Personal Enterprise is the simplest of organizations — the boss controls most everything. Classically, this is the entrepreneurial firm. It’s not uncommon for everyone to report to the founder. The personal form actually resists structure, especially formal systems of planning and control, as impediments to the flexibility of the boss.

Just as in world cup yacht racing, one person comes up with the idea or the vision, works with the designer of the hull, engages the crew, and skippers the boat during races. It’s not that the other members of the crew are incidental; it’s that their efforts revolve around the chief.

2. Football: The Programmed Machine

Programmed Machines are the opposite — they love hierarchy, order, control systems, and especially rules. Everything conceivable is programmed, sometimes even the customers. (Have you cleared your tray at a fast-food franchise recently?) All is programmed so the organization can run as smoothly as a machine.

No sport comes close to football (North American) for its sharp division of labor and the extent of its programming. Rules or standards specify who is allowed to hold the ball, catch it, and kick it. Look at the formation on the field, not to mention the cheerleaders on the side: everybody is carefully lined up. Even hierarchy is built right in. The quarterback calls the play (possibly radioed in from the coach) by number no less, and all the players respond accordingly. Football is made to measure for scientific management!

3. Baseball: The Professional Assembly

In the Professional Assembly, skilled people assemble to carry out their services — educate students, transplant hearts, make music, play baseball. It may look like they’re working together, but mostly they’re working apart, coordinated by the training that enables each to know exactly what to expect of the others. Watch an orchestra in concert, or surgeons and nurses in an operating room, and you’ll see amazing coordination without the need to exchange a single comment or take a single order.

Is the double play in baseball any different? The shortstop picks up the ball and flips it to the second baseman who throws out the runner at first base. The beauty is in the execution, not the innovation, just as in open-heart surgery. (Would you like to be operated on by a creative surgeon? Does your favorite baseball team have a creative catcher?) The players all stand apart, each to do his or her own thing. No one on the field is in charge. Even the manager in the dugout dresses like the players. At bat, the players come up one by one and run the bases alone. Everyone functions in a personal silo. This has to be the perfect sport to play during a pandemic.

4. Hockey: The Project Pioneer

Project Pioneers are the explorers of the modern world, staffed with intrapreneurial experts who collaborate in teams to create novel outputs — ones that open new territory. Think of a research laboratory, a film set, or a hockey team.

In hockey, as well as basketball, soccer and rugby, when a team picks up the puck or ball at its end, nobody quite knows how the play will unfold —the players included, who have to collaborate spontaneously to outwit their opponent. It’s like a new project every time.

The essence of these project sports is to take advantage of the situation at hand, including the strengths and weaknesses of the players on both sides as well as the opportunities that open up. Of course, there can be surprises in the other sports too, but these are often the exceptions rather than the rule. In a project organization, expect the unexpected. No scorecard to fill in here, as in baseball—what would the categories be anyway?

Famous sports display fundamental organizational forms. The differences are evident on the field. So the next time you watch your favorite team, besides being entertained, let yourself understand organizations… finally!

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