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What Creative Design Departments can learn from professional sports teams

Author: Martin Groschwald
Unity / Team

Ever since I was a little kid, I have drawn a great amount of inspiration from sports – team sports to be exact. What you learn when you play in a team, to find your role in a team, to understand leadership in a team and to succeed together was something that sports (in my case handball) have taught me and, I realized that only once I started working, had a profound impact on my career choices and eventually what Konzepthaus has become over the past 

So, when I first started working within the creative design area, I felt a bit out of place. There weren’t and to my knowledge, there still aren’t a lot of people who have a strong affinity to sports. It seemed to me that there was either a choice of either art or sports. Very seldomly I found a person who enjoyed both within the creative industry.

Over the years, I have got more and more insight into the creative world and I realized that sports teams and creative teams are really not that different from each other. Of course, the Moneyball system introduce by the Oakland Athletics baseball team will never be transferred into a creative team but there are some fantastic examples, successes, and failures for creative leadership and management to learn from professional sports teams. [If you haven’t read Michael Lewis’ Moneyball I can only highly recommend it]

I have limited myself to 3 examples but there could be dozens more.

A team of all-stars does not guarantee success – Real Madrid Galacticos 2002-2005

A term that is regularly coming up in conversation about hiring and recruiting is “Superstar” or “Rockstar”. I’ll be honest, it’s overused, inaccurate, and simply not used. A lot of creative managers and departments want a team of superstar. What is oftentimes forgotten: Superstars do never guarantee success! Taking the example of Spanish football giants Real Madrid from 2002 – 2005, they had the best individual talent in the given time frame. Players like Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo, Ronaldo, David Beckham, Raul, and Iker Casillas were players that a lot of people knew that weren’t football fans. They were and still are genuine superstars. During this period however they “only” one Spanish league title. Ambitious goals such as another Champions League had to wait until years later. The success of the years before was a sacrifice for other values. The players couldn’t deliver on their promise to win trophies.

Team work is key to win Championships – Leicester City 2015/2016

Showing that a team is always stronger than a bunch of highly skilled individuals was never better displayed than by Leicester City FC winning the English Premier League in the 2015/16 season. Leicester was projected to fight for relegation but has surprised everyone with what the media has called the biggest achievement in modern-day football. Led by an outstanding leadership spearheaded by Manager Claudia Ranieri, the entire coaching staff has led a team of then-unknown players (only a few of them actually played for their national team) to the highest glory in English football. They won the league by 10 points. When we look at how much can be achieved by empowered and trusting in your team, colleagues, and employees to make the right decisions, the results will be great of those of each individual. 

A leader can be tough but must understand he can’t succeed without trusting his teammates – Michael Jordan trusting Steve Kerr in “The Last Dance”

Of course, it is always great to have a team member that outstanding in what she or he does. But just having one person, no matter how good that person is, will make it difficult to achieve the goals you’re setting yourself. By 1990, Michael Jordan had one every single individual award there was in the NBA. However, he still hadn’t won an NBA championship. He was acknowledged at that moment in time as the best basketball player to play the game. But he would never be the best without a championship. In the fabulous Netflix documentary “The Last Dance” he said something about his personal development process (I am paraphrasing): “I needed to learn to trust my teammates. They understood what I expected from them and I was demanding. But I need to trust them to achieve the goal to win a championship. I couldn’t get there by myself.” 

In-Game 6 of the 1997 NBA finals, it was Michael Jordan who understood that he will be guarded by 2 people passed the ball to Steve Kerr who made the game and eventually championship-winning shot for the Chicago Bulls. 

Having an outstanding talent in your teams helps you to get to high levels but only the team will elevate you to the highest level possible.

Have you ever had a similar experience in your professional life? Do you have another example you’d like to share? We’d love to hear your stories and sharing them with the creative community.

Send me an email or leave me a message on LinkedIn and tell me your thoughts about this topic.