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Sports as a model for the (sales) organization

In sports, the line-up of your team can make the difference between winning and losing. How often do we see more talented teams or clubs with more resources ($) and better gear being defeated by what were considered 'lesser' teams? The line-up and game plan however, are seldom the sole reason why these teams win. They undoubtedly play a crucial role in getting the best results given the situation. Coaches know they cannot get out and hire the Zidane's, Pele's, Cruyff's, Beckham's and Maradona's of 'their industry'. Like in business, it is about making the best possible use of limited existing resources. The analogy between sports and business is interesting food for thought.

There are many things we can learn from sports coaches: for every game, the sports coach will look at his team, their capabilities and skills, the physical condition of each individual, the opponent(s) and creates a line-up and game plan given these constraints. He does everything he can to motivate and push his people the highest level of performance and although his focus is on the short term (winning the next game), he is also working on a transformation to meet his long term goals (getting promoted to a higher league) at the same time.


The process of 'lining-up people' in business is quite different. Most managers and leaders will take the strategy as the prime input, including the 'opponents' and goals to achieve. They then draw their ideal future organization to achieve the plans. After that and as good or as bad as possible, employees will be put into the available spots. Often followed by instructions to HR, HOD’s and line managers to find the best talent to fill in the positions that could not be fulfilled internally and to let go of those that unfortunately do not fit.

Possibly resulting in:
  • Resource gaps: (key) positions are left unfilled for quite a time or temporary need to be filled/taken up by others
  • Capability gaps: reassigned team members that are not suitable for the new role
  • Short-term battles are lost: not only because of the (temporary) confusion of the change, but also because the new organization targets to win the future battles and not necessarily tomorrows.
  • Potential loss of long-term battles: loosing short-term battles undermines the strategy/plan for the long-term.
  • Potential loss of momentum: time is needed to 'proof' that the new organization is working 
In addition, the success of the new organization and plan could be put in the hands of new found talent, introducing another risk as the new 'talent' may not fit or perform in the end. A doom scenario and the conclusion could be not to change at all and to maintain the current situation. This is not an option, unless and for now, you have a winning team.


Whilst the coach might have an ideal team in mind to meet his long term goals, he knows that his first priority is to win this week’s game: his 'organization' setup deals with the here and now. He is working hard on active talent management and is well aware of the mixture of (very) good and unfortunately under performers in his team yet each of them having unique talents relative to the other. His task is to best use the available talents and will rotate and re-assign them if needed. Getting talent from outside, whilst maybe needed for his long-term transition, is not an option.
He knows that his opponents have the same issue, which if played well, could be an advantage! Looking at the next game(s) to win and considering all the constraints, he re-engineers his team. He finds that a weak striker is actually quite suitable as midfielder. A star defender gets a more prominent role in the defence, maybe even the role of team captain, and there are a few midfielders suitable to be strikers. He makes up his mind and after a meeting with his staff and in preparation for the game, all effort goes out to communicate the plan, everybody's role in it and sessions are organized to practice, train and motivate the team.

The real world

Is this analogy anywhere applicable in a (sales) organization? The game is the battle to exceed the quarterly or annual targets or even the next opportunity. The game plan is the sales and marketing plan. The line-up is the (virtual) team or organization setup with sales the strikers, product and application management the midfielders and customer service and support the defenders. 

Arguably, a business organization cannot change for each battle and the sports coach has 'only' a handful of people to look after including reserve players. In business, there are no reserve employees and a team is easily five, ten or even thousand 'players'. There is inertia in the organization, there is an established hierarchy and there are company procedures, politics or just unwillingness of people to change their role or scope. Furthermore, pre-conceived ideas and generalizations on job functions, the people that perform them and the perceived suitability to assign them to different roles or scope, render any further comparison with sports invalid.

Yet, a focus on getting the best out of the current resources for the current task, whatever the current limitations. An active talent management, which together with short-term goals steer the necessary organization changes to win today’s battles. A relentless effort to communicate, motivate, coach and train and a long-term transformation project to build the ideal team and organization. How can that not be applicable?

Would your organization look different, if designed around currently available resources and today’s battles? 
Now that's food for thought...

Jack van Mook
© 2012 EnFeat