We have all used metaphors to help explain things, including understanding the nature of change. For many, this includes the use of a sports metaphor. American football, for example has been frequently used to explain how business works, what effective leadership looks like, and how employees are expected to perform. Its metaphor has been embedded in American business culture for more than 70 years, reinforcing values that promote “individual” performance over team performance. However, in the age of collaboration, more and more work is done by teams—and that trend is only going to continue. That means the football metaphor is no longer adequate.

A New Metaphor (and Model)

So, what’s a new metaphor that can be used by people and organizations to help them acclimate to today’s workplace? It must be one that conveys the need for more agility on the part of individuals and collaboration on the part of teams.

When you look at today’s highly competitive global business world, it looks like the global game of soccer. This is a world where technology continues to help organizations be more responsive to customers. Technology also helps empower employees on the front line (or pitch, the term used in soccer to describe the playing field) to make decisions, take risks, and manage constant change. Here, a network has replaced the traditional hierarchy, with people and teams collaborating on projects, customer engagements, and new products. This may include collaborating to innovate in a variety of applications!

In my book, The Collaborator: Discover Soccer as a Metaphor for Global Business Leadership, I describe soccer as the best example of a sport with teams charged to perform their work under changing conditions. The best soccer teams in the world succeed by applying a mindset that recognizes a mutual dependency between players on the field; it’s a genuine collaborative teamwork. This is why soccer works best in today’s global business world, for example, innovation is highly dependent on teams practicing genuine collaborative teamwork!

Soccer’s metaphor (and model) can be leveraged in the global workplace for improving team effectiveness.

Change the Metaphor

Organizations want to reinvent their leadership models to help people deal with the changing workplace, in which engagement levels continue to drop and many employees have little faith in their leadership. If organizations are serious about making changes that match up with the modern workplace, they must use new metaphors to help people comprehend their experience in ways that are productive. Soccer’s metaphor works best for helping organizations achieve the kind of transformational change needed!

When I wrote The Collaborator in 2007, people told me that I was 20 years too early for soccer’s metaphor to be accepted by people and the mainstream media. A decade later, nothing has really changed in my thinking about using soccer’s metaphor—except that there’s a greater need to address the challenges associated with managing change!

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The continued growth of soccer in the United States at all levels over the past 10 years has made it a game that’s common in everyday American life. The critical mass needed to promote soccer’s metaphor in the United States is present!

Overcoming Team Development’s Challenge

Why has team development in the United States been an ongoing challenge in organizations?

Again, a big part of the answer is tied to the metaphors used in the past to describe what leadership looks like and how employees are expected to perform. Individual performance has been the dominant message conveyed in business since the early 19th century. Before that, metaphors were used to promote the image of the “rugged individual,” which has dominated the American way since the beginning.

Because of that messaging, most people in today’s workplace don’t function with a mindset that supports team collaboration. The typical mindset supports group work that is often described as cooperating or coordinating with others. Obviously that description is too limiting and is a product of a culture whose “values favor individual responsibility and performance over any form of groups, whether it be a team or otherwise,” wrote Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith back in 1992, in their bestselling book, The Wisdom of Teams.

In Summary

Organizations are trying to keep up with three accelerating universal changes: technology, complexity, and uncertainty. This shifting context demands a collaborative mindset as a necessary perspective for managing change across these three areas. The future requires people who understand that only through collaboration will they gain the necessary knowledge and commitment to solve complex problems presented by these changes. Teams and organizations that succeed recognize the need to involve all relevant stakeholders, both external and internal, in decision making. They will need to constantly collaborate.

Soccer’s metaphor (and model) can be leveraged in the global workplace for effectively managing change across these three areas.