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 2012

Game Plan, a column on management lessons from sport, will run every month.

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