I have touched on high performance in some previous posts, but I want to revisit the topic from a perspective that is very popular in Australia – believing that organisations can learn about achieving high individual or team performance from sport. Given sport here is a national obsession and that so many motivational speakers or leadership events make use of sports analogies or former sports people, it really needs to be looked at what, if anything, is transferable into the business or organisational context.

So how do you know a team is high performing in sport? They are winning games. And how do you win? By scoring goals, tries, points etc. So far, quite simple. But it’s not the whole story. In sport, you can only score if you play by the rules. If, say, a foul precedes a goal, it doesn’t count. This is absolutely crucial, as it makes up for the huge appeal of watching sports – there are clear rules, the rules are understood on and off the field and the rules are enforced. Players are held to account by one or several umpires and sometimes even video evidence and match review panels after the event.

Why can’t I stress this enough? Because nothing like it exists in the business or organisational context. For most roles, it is not even clear what ‘scoring’ equates to. Some roles have measurable outcomes – sales dollars or number of transactions processed, but for the vast majority of roles no clear ‘scoring’ measure exists. If you don’t know what you are counting, how do you know that you are winning? The measurement problem is a big headache; I have written previously that picking things that are easy to measure can lead to poor outcomes.

It gets worse, though. In the business or organisational context, even if the rules do exist and are clear, they are not enforced by an independent third party with power and expert authority. Let’s go back to the sport analogy. The rules of the game exist in writing, are transparent and accessible to everyone. Expert umpires or referees have to study the rules and demonstrate proficiency to be selected. These umpires have power on the field, have the authority to make decisions that affect the final outcome of the game. In some sports they are literally ‘untouchable’ – if you touch the referee as a player, you get sent off.

It should again be immediately obvious that nothing like this exists in the organisational context. There may be some industry code of conduct, some internal standards or some ombudsman to protect against the worst excesses, but the rules mainly protect customers, not give clarity to employees. Yet to have measurable and comparable performance, you need not only measures, but also rules and you need to enforce those rules. To top it all off, one of the most common rules in performance measurement – forced ranking based on a Bell curve – is actually dead wrong!

How does this lack of rules effect performance? A simple example will suffice. Say you are a sales rep for your business and say you are short of your target for the quarter. You ring up your favourite account and ask them to put in their next order earlier than normal, allowing you to meet target. Are you still playing by the rules? Who knows! In some businesses yes, in others no and in most nobody would have the faintest idea if this is an acceptable practice.

Now let’s take this example back into sport. You ‘tackle’ a defender and then score a goal. Was it a legal foul? The equivalent to the above would be that when playing team A it’s not a foul, with team B it’s a foul and most of the time nobody knows because no written rule or umpire exists. Who would watch such a sport? The inconsistency would drive spectators nuts and they would desert the sport in no time.

This is the crux of the matter when looking at the relationship between high performance in sport vs business. Every sport has clear rules that are consistently enforced by independent umpires with power and expert authority. No business has anything like it. Some public services have clear rules and reasonable enforcement (think medical care). Academic research these days has a single performance measure based purely on publications in high-impact journals, which is doing more harm than good. Yet without such rules and enforcement you can’t tell if seemingly high performance is the result of great skill or simply cheating.

Think about the amount of time and effort that is invested in most sports to keep the rules relevant and enforceable. Think DRS in cricket, goal line technology, HawkEye in tennis and so on. Think about rule changes to keep games relevant and watchable. The successful sports codes have continued to evolve their rules to keep the sport relevant to their fan base and changing tastes, attention spans etc.

Where is the equivalent investment in the workplace? Most ‘rule’ changes are driven simply by cost cutting – outsourcing, offshoring, cubicles, automation etc. If clear performance measures and rules are introduced, they often dehumanise workers and exploit those who are desperate for work (look at the work practices in Amazon warehouses or the sweatshop part of the textile industry).

So whilst learning from top performers in sport might seem desirable, there is little that is transferable into the world of business or public sector organisations. The context is just too different. There is one thing that is transferable, though – how to manage superstars. More about that in my next post.