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Years ago I was actually a pretty fair high school basketball player.  Through a lot of hard work and perseverance I was able to win a spot on the varsity squad.  It was really enjoyable to play the game at a high level and to reach a personal goal for myself.

Through that experience I learned a few things about the nature of competition and teamwork.  While physically talented, the team I played on never did reach its full potential.  Looking back, I think I can identify some of the reasons why.

Our varsity team carried twelve players with two or three of them playing on both the varsity and junior varsity teams.  All twelve of us had varying skill levels.  We had a couple of league all-stars who went on to play college ball.  And we had a lot of role players just trying to maximize our talents.  I think our biggest problem is that we never became more than twelve individuals wearing the same uniform.

The atmosphere of competition on the team never allowed us to become a real team.  Instead of uniting us, our competition drove us apart, we competed to keep our playing time or our position instead of competing for a league title.  We ended up losing in divisional playoffs to teams with inferior physical talents.

One example of this destructive competition came in a mid-season tournament.  One of our college bound players realized there were a number of scouts at the game.  So he decided to use the game to showcase all of his individual talents.  We lost the game by two as our post player decided to take the final three point shot.

Other members of the team had their own goals to pursue – like impressing their parents, girlfriends, or themselves.  We were a team in name only and never achieved the kind of unity and community necessary to multiply the talents on our team.  And that was the real crime, we were talented but we held ourselves back.

Most of the players on the team had priorities other than winning games or championships.  We had people we wanted to impress, or we just wanted to play more than so and so, or get more points, or whatever.  The point is we were all playing for ourselves and not for the team.

This same thing happens in our organizations each and every day.  Individual players are playing their own game, for their own reasons, and often in direct competition with people on their own team.

Why?  What makes honest, hard-working people, take actions that will end up having a negative effect on the organization?

Almost always, it boils down to a lack of organizational clarity and health.  I think that the healthiest organizations always know what is most important right now.  Unhealthy organizations don’t have that clarity.  Employees don’t understand the most important organizational goals and end up pursuing their own.  A lack of clarity will create and “us against them” mentality as different departments just try to survive.

The solution is to really become a team.  And that means a team that is completely clear about its purpose and goals.  A team that understands what is most important right now, and how it must act to achieve the goal.  The kind of team that trust one another completely, can say anything to each other, and holds one another accountable until they win.

These are the teams that win, even when they have less talent than their competition.  They multiply the talents of the team until it is enough to do the job.  My high school basketball team didn’t multiply, and because of it – we didn’t win.