Making Teamwork Work

I have been a part of a number of teams as a player, and more recently as a coach. The need and dynamics of bringing a set of individually skilled players together and aligning their efforts towards a common goal is a unique and inspiring challenge to take on as a coach. Through this column, I would like to share with the readers some of the lessons I personally absorbed from these experiences.
My most recent assignment was with the Uttar Pradesh Ranji Trophy team for the season that just went by. When I was offered this opportunity, I thought long and hard about the pros and cons of taking up the same—I finally decided to take the plunge and give it my best shot.

Imagining divides where none exist

As I embarked on this assignment, I had multiple people giving me words of caution and advice. The first and foremost one stemmed from the so-called cultural divide that exists in India—that a “conservative south Indian” should be coaching a team of “aggressive north Indians” seemed incredulous to many people. In my personal experience, I never felt this—it helped that I had interacted and worked with some of the players in the team during my previous coaching assignments.

I found that where there is professionalism and a focus on achieving the larger goal, the cultural aspects can be very easily overcome. One of the keys to making this successful, however, is for the coach to lead by example. I realized that unless I was out there, sweating it in the middle and demonstrating discipline and work ethic, there was no way of inspiring my wards to do the same. Once I started the regime—of fitness, practice and rigorous technical assessment—I found that the players were more than happy to comply.

Your team is better than you think

The other caution that I was repeatedly given was to guard against internal politics in the team and perceived ego clashes—in reality, I found that the perception was far from the truth. What I found instead was a team that was hungry to perform, succeed and elevate itself to the next level. There is an important lesson here on not prejudging the environment in any new assignment we take up—in the corporate world, it may be a role change, a department change, a new job or a new country—it is critical to go in with an open mind and allow things to settle down before making judgement calls.

This particular team had a unique mixture of “stars”—players who had represented the country at the highest levels, local stars who had been consistent domestic performers and newbies. While the first group was obviously regarded with awe and looked up to for constant motivation and guidance, the mix was actually very beneficial. In fact, it so happened that we could not avail the services of many of the international players for multiple matches in the season due to conflicting commitments. What was good to see, however, was that their absence did not deter the team from pushing ahead towards the collective goal—someone or the other always put their hand up to be counted and delivered a performance that helped the team win. This, I am sure, is a dynamic that exists in ample measure in the corporate world as well. My belief is that the onus lies on all three constituencies—the stars, the hard grinders in the team and the coach—to make sure that the presence or otherwise of any single individual does not deter the team’s focus overall.
Goal setting: well begun is half done

An important starting point in this exercise is a firm, collective goal setting exercise. We engaged the services of a professional firm to conduct this activity at the beginning of the season. While there was the usual scepticism about the effectiveness of such an exercise, the preparation, approach and the execution mechanism of this programme ensured that it was a “by the players, of the players, for the players” exercise. Players were encouraged to set their individual goals for the season and agree on multiple milestones for the team. For e.g., the first milestone we set for ourselves was to qualify to the knockout round and then take it from there. The collective focus of the team around this goal ensured that we actually achieved it during the season—not only did the team qualify for the knockout round, but we ensured that we did not lose a single match in the process. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of this exercise at the beginning of the journey—there is no more powerful driver than a common set of goals that everyone rallies around.

Keep it simple

As a coach, one of the key mantras I have followed that works well is to keep things simple. In today’s age of technology, analytics and an avalanche of available date, we often tend to over-complicate our diagnosis and any remedial measures that a player may require from the coach. A case in point is a situation many years ago when one of the most promising fast bowlers from India had a torrid debut session—he was spraying the ball all over and in his eagerness to make an impression conceded a bag of runs while not taking any wickets. As he came back to the dressing room crestfallen, I realized that the moment was then and there to give him one, simple tip to make a small technical change to his action. I remember spending just 30 minutes with him and focusing on this one simple change that needed to be made. As the media, including many cricketing experts, crucified him in the newspapers next morning, the player in question proceeded to bag a five-for and prove a point. The point here is not about the technical change that was made, but to emphasize that as leaders and coaches, keeping it simple is much more powerful and impactful than doing multi-dimensional, complex analysis.

A coach is often in a very unique position—he/she cannot go out there and perform. The technical skill that a coach possesses may just be one aspect of the overall skill sets required—in my case, bowling—yet, it is often required that you have to be the guiding lamp and voice of reason for all the players.
It is increasingly clear that coaching roles, just like the game itself, are less about core skill and more about context, perspective and human dynamics. Keeping your own chin up all the time and brimming with enthusiasm and confidence, can get the best results out of your team. Most importantly, as a coach, you have to enjoy what you are doing and why you are doing the same—it is often not just a job, but a state of mind.

All rights reserved © 2013 TENVIC
The writer, Venkatesh Prasad is a former Indian cricketer.

First Published: Tue, Apr 02 2013. 12 23 AM IST in the Mint

Getting Teamwork and Innovation Decisions Right

Both in sports and business, there are few players or companies that have had lasting success that transcends a generation. Apart from the sustained passion for their work, teamwork and innovation have always played a vital role in this success.

Team work
Table tennis is a team sport just as is tennis, badminton…and I am not just talking about playing doubles! No matter where you play—state, country, club—you are always a part of a team of co-players who push each other in practice and in competition, along with the coaches, physio, manager and family supporting you.

Teamwork is perhaps even more important in business although not easy to achieve. A leader, while organizing and deploying teams has to choose between different types of team depending on the situation and the needs. Broadly, there are three types of teams (allowing ourselves some leeway to generalize) and I for obvious reasons like the sport metaphors!

Football: The members play as a team and follow the captain or coach. The whole unit is extremely coordinated passing, anticipating moves and working as a single unit. You win and lose as a team. The advantages of this type of team are that it is easier to instill team spirit and the feeling of belonging to a structure. However, members must subordinate themselves to the team and it is harder to individually motivate members.
Cricket: Each member plays a position and does one’s job. The team does well if each person does well and this gives you the option of having several stars on the team. People play on the team but it is harder to get them to play as a team and there lies the captain’s challenge (that’s why underdogs like Rajasthan were able to create upsets in the Ranji Trophy over more fancied outfits by playing as a team).

Lastly, my favourite—a table tennis (or tennis) doubles team where only the team performs and individual members just contribute to the ultimate goal to win. It is a dynamic team where team members cover their teammates and adjust strategies, balance of power, decision-making and other elements depending on the strengths and weaknesses of both your partner and the opponents.

We were fortunate to win two doubles Commonwealth Golds— Glasgow (1997) and Singapore (2000). While both were equally satisfying, they were so different. Each tournament was different and each match different in the partnership (e.g. semifinals and finals at Glasgow were so different on who took the lead on the team compared to the same matches in Singapore).

In such a team composition, there is no set leader or follower. Depending on the opponent, each partner could take on the role of a leader either for an entire match or just a few points.

A leader would become the follower and vice-versa. For example, if I had trouble with an opponent’s serve then my partner might advice on what play to make so that he could be ready for the next shot. Likewise, I might advise my partner on what serve to make so that I could get the best return possible to complement my strengths. Or, depending on the form of each partner on the day, one might take a more leading role.
While the output of such a team composition is higher, it requires unwavering commitment, a high degree of trust, communication and coordination. It also requires team members to train and work together, know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, before they can achieve this level of performance. It is also probably not suitable for people or corporate cultures that are primarily hierarchical. While it is harder to achieve, the rewards of performance are well worth it. The most successful table tennis and tennis doubles team members are also good friends that respect each other off the court. We also know what happens when the personal relationship fails!
Depending on your corporate culture, situational needs and available members, choose to build the team that is right for you!

Innovation
When I stood in line at my business school career fair, I realized how much I hated it! I hated everything about it—that I had to sell myself, that I got only one minute with a recruiter, that all my experience thus far and the hard academic work was worth only a little. I was used to people asking me—I was the expert—and now I was getting ready to prove myself all over again.

But looking back, it was necessary to make the transition and in a way reinvent the career. In order to do that, I had to give up what I was good at and get out of the comfort zone.

This does not just apply to huge career changes—e.g. Prakash Padukone, who described the transition to a coach from player— but also applies to athletes through their playing careers. The game evolves tremendously through a player’s lifespan and one has to adapt or lead the change. Roger Federer for example started out with a mainly sliced backhand that won him his first Wimbledon and over the years has developed a topspin backhand which has helped him to win the French Open and also compete with the modern players today.

Innovation is another word that is discussed a lot in the corporate world… and probably rightfully so. Looking around us, most companies both local and international that have lasting legacies have been able to innovate and reinvent themselves a few times over. Add to that today’s global competition and the constant threat of disruptive technologies, the pressure to stay ahead is even stronger.

But all innovation is not reinvention. There are two types of innovation that may very well compete with each other. There is the incremental innovation that comes from constantly working towards improving everyday and taking a few small risks… And then there is transformational innovation where reinventing takes place.

Incremental innovation is better suited to an environment that is pursuing perfection in a given paradigm; pursuing a repeatable process that allows for small continuous improvement. In sport this is long and hard practice hours perfecting strokes and patterns, and in the corporate world it would be to build a process and culture that achieves this successful repeatability.

The other more transformational approach is the push to innovate big or reinvent, which essentially means giving up something you already have and may be working reasonably well in the short term with the view to be more effective in the future.

For example, when I started my playing career, the game was attack vs block (or defence)… which then later evolved to attack-counter attack. Hence, while I had developed a great defence, I had to almost give it up later to keep up with the times.

Obviously, both are equally important and it is the leader who should choose the right approach based on the environment, internal strengths and the specific situation. Companies that have transcended generations have got these decisions right!

Chetan Baboor is an Indian international table tennis player and winner of the Arjuna Award.
©All Rights Reserved. TENVIC 2013

First Published: Tue, Mar 19 2013 in the Mint

The Individuality Conundrum

Javagal Srinath shares a set of simple principles that he has realized have held him in good stead during his career from a self-development perspective.

In the formative years of any cricketers there are unique situation where there is a perceived conflict between individual excellence and fulfillment of team goals. In my long career as a player, and now an administrator and referee, I have encountered this many times. In this context, it is important for us to assess and chart a path for each member of a team and enabling performance at an individual level. Looking back at my career, I am sharing through this column, a set of simple principles that I have realised have held me in good stead during my career as an international sportsperson from a self-development perspective.

Developing into a strong individual

Just as it was in the first part of our lives when playing cricket, advice and guidance aplenty comes from all quarters in cricket administration too. Such extraneous influences, be it advice, guidance, appreciation or criticism, play an integral part in making decisions and shaping our careers. To distinguish between well-meaning advice and criticism for the sake of it, embracing the appropriate positive suggestions and improving on our way of functioning by accepting constructive criticism builds confidence and increases our credibility. I have often seen that the best partnerships have been built in the middle by players who don’t advice each too much on the state of the pitch, how to play and so on, but act as ideal foils to each other by giving the mental space that a counterpart deserves.

I believe one’s individual identity is built by striking the delicate and correct balance between outer influence and inner strength. Many players lose their way by getting swayed by external influences and failing to build their individual identity. This identity building process entails building skills that are beyond your “designated” skills. And there are many others who have lost their way by completing insulating themselves from outer influences. Only a few individuals who tread the fine path by combining the outside and the inside find success on the long run. Be it a player or an administrator, the challenge is to recognise how much of the outer influences match and align with the conviction and value practices of your own.

Idolising

Idolising a role model is a double-edged sword. It is important, especially at the beginning of one’s career, to have an idol, but it can also be dangerous if the role model himself is slightly flawed, or if you to try to ape him without exception. Idol worship does set the co-ordinates of your interest in the game and works as a strong reference point in the formative years. But it is equally important to move away from that subtle relationship to create one’s own identity with the progression of time and with one’s own growth as an individual and a cricketer. Attempts to blindly emulate the role model beyond a point could hamper individual strength as he can sub-consciously drift away from his originality. At times, even sycophantic practices could proliferate if one doesn’t deliberately deter such practices. To realise the absolute potential of an individual, it is necessary to find the hero within you at some stage.

Effective Functioning of a team

Any team that is desirous of functioning well must have a core formed by a few seniors in the side. Such a core, formed by the select few responsible members, drives the team to its objectives. The core is not a permanent one but keeps changing with some players going out and new players coming in. Any team which sustains the core for a significant period of time will invariably while produce the right results. For example, the India team in the early 2000s when Sachin Tendulkar, Anil Kumble, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman formed a formidable core, which lasted for nearly a decade while producing, results not only in india, but also abroad. Mahendra Singh Dhoni and his team formed a core with Virender Sehwag, Sachin, Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan all on the same page well before the World Cup, after the retirements of Anil and Sourav. There is no permanent place for anyone in the core. In many ways, the core takes shape on its own when players’ thinking and collective objectives are on the same page. When a core is formed, the value systems of the individual players coincide. The player who gets the support of the entire core grows faster rather than one who gets the backing of isolated individuals as opposed to the collective group.

Coaching and knowledge

The general belief is to keep doing one’s thing and expect the coaches, the mentor or a senior cricketer to deliver knowledge or explain the intricate details to a player. But in reality, it is what information you absorb and assimilate as an individual that help enhance your skills. This is the very definition of learning, and quite contrary to the class-room approach. The coach or mentor facilitates one’s development, but the desire to learn and progress must essentially be an intrinsic one.

Form

As often as it is used, the word ‘form’ is nothing but a function of time. Right from Sachin Tendulkar to Amit Mishra, every cricketer goes through both purple and lean patches. The tolerance level the team exhibits towards a player who is not performing to his potential is based more on the humane side of the player than the cricketing talent he possesses. The time given for a sincere player to shed his lean trot is definitely more than the time offered to a flashy but more talented player. It becomes very important, therefore, to portray a consistent selfless image to garner support at a crucial moment of an individual’s career. Therefore, one’s form is measured not just by runs and wickets, but also by the consistency shown in one’s attitude and approach throughout one’s career.
While the cliché goes, “There is no I in team”, it is important not to lose sight of personal goals and development. While experience acts as a great teacher, often teaching harsh lessons every step of the way, a conscious and focused approach towards self-development can help accelerate the same. So, the next time you feel conflicted, remember what the legendary coach Vince Lombardi said, “Individual commitment to a group effort — that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.”

Printed in e-paper Mint on Feb 12, 2013, Pg 4.