The power in a team

The power of a cohesive team is often demonstrated both in sports and in business. Unity and executing against a plan can make a team successful despite improbable odds.

The power in a team by Nancy Knowlton

I played on the Quebec basketball team for a number of years at a time when the province decided to invest heavily in its sports teams. We had a great coach and trained year round out of a Montreal base. Significant portions of summers were spent at basketball camps in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, practicing and playing against some of the best players and teams in the United States.

All about basketball

It was a magical time. I met a number of the NBA pros who I had watched on TV. We played against women who graced the covers of Sports Illustrated and emerging stars who would go on to dominate the U.S. college scene. The experience was demanding and intense, and I loved it.

After the Canada Games, I transferred out of Quebec and with eligibility remaining, joined another university basketball team. It was but a few short years earlier that women were first allowed to attend my new university so the women’s sports programs were in a building phase. My teammates and coach were great people individually and we had our moments, but it was definitely a step down from the Quebec team in terms of skill set and intensity.

Tough competition

One week we began our preparations for our toughest competition of the year against the team that was ranked number 2 in Canada. The coach started to describe a strategy that I thought had no chance of success based on everything that I knew about winning strategies and the abilities of my teammates. I was about to challenge her when I looked around and saw the acceptance and commitment on the faces of my teammates as they listened to her. People were nodding as she spoke, absorbing her plan.

I made an immediate decision to join them in accepting the plan that the coach laid out. You probably guessed it – against improbable odds, we won the game on a combination of hard work and a well-executed plan against a competitor who was overconfident. Another underdog overachieving against a much more powerful opponent.

I learned a lot out of that experience.

Life lessons

First, I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was. My Quebec team experience was one thing but it didn’t qualify me as a coach. It’s impossible to do two things at once – play and coach. I learned that it was best to stick with the playing and leave the coaching to someone who could see the whole game with a dispassionate set of eyes. I was reacting to a plan versus thinking about all of the options that the coach had to select the plan. I didn’t know her plan for prepping us for the game, and that was crucial to our success. My initial reaction that it wouldn’t work was armchair quarterbacking at its worst.

I was glad that I had not spoken up and challenged the coach in front of the team or even in private. To do so would have been petty and small, and I could have fractured the team’s cohesiveness. The girls already looked at me and my experience as a notch or more above their own experiences. They didn’t need me to remind them of that, and as it turned out the coach was right and I was wrong – a lesson that I thankfully learned in private as well.

I learned that the prep for the game was all about developing a deep belief in the plan and a positive outlook on how the game would unfold. Our coach drilled this into us and almost nothing surprised us in the game – either that we or our opponent did.

Team alignment

Perhaps the biggest lesson for me, though, was what a team aligned behind a plan can do. With everyone working the same plan, pulling together at the same time, believing in each other and the plan, we did deliver a miracle win. Too often people think that filling every position with the best possible player, a star, is the only way to win against a powerful opponent. Day after day, this is disproved in sports and in business. It is how the people on the court actually work together to execute the plan that makes all the difference. (Now it is impossible to pull off a win in sports or in business without a basic level of competence, so it’s not as if a rag-tag group of people can compete and win in all instances.)

I am not prepping or playing basketball games anymore, but the lesson of this match has stayed with me as I play the game of business in real life. I will never underestimate a competitor who looks weak and unable, nor am I afraid to take on larger players with a good plan of action. Having a good plan is often enough with a committed, cohesive team pulling in the same direction.

Game on.

Postscript

Take a look at Malcolm Gladwell’s in-depth article, “How David Beats Goliath” in The New Yorker. He demonstrates that even if obstacles seem insurmountable, a dedicated team united under an unexpected strategy can beat a more powerful opponent.

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Nancy Knowlton
Nancy Knowlton is co-founder and CEO of Nureva Inc. and previously the co-founder and CEO of SMART Technologies. She writes about education, entrepreneurship, business management, technology, innovation and other passions.