Teamwork v. Collaboration (And Why I’m Finally Lifting My Ban On Sports Analogies)

If you’re in business, you’ve no doubt had someone – probably your boss or a motivational speaker – attempt to inspire you with a sports analogy.

“We’re in the bottom of the ninth; it’s time to show the competition what we’re made of!”

“It’s crunch time, people. It’s 4th and goal; we need to push this ball over the line to win.”

I know these can be very meaningful to some people.  But I never found them very inspiring.

I’m actually a former high school athlete myself.  I swimdon’t like to brag, but back in the day, I was a mediocre, frequently injured gymnast and diver.

But you never hear anyone saying, “OK, let’s keep our toes pointed, rotate around as fast as we can, and score a big perfect ten for the Gipper!”

Most of the rah-rah analogies are drawn from men’s team sports.  Their purpose is to rally people around a common goal. Yet as business continues to evolve, we’re moving from teamwork to collaboration.

Teamwork and collaboration are closely connected, but they’re not the same.  As my colleague and friend accountability expert Sam Silverstein says, “Teamwork and collaboration are cousins, but they’re not twins.”

Here are four key differences between teamwork and collaboration:

Teamwork: Command and control
Collaboration: Creative and flexible

When you’re driving the ball down the line, players stick to their assigned roles. You have to make snap decisions.  But, much like the Army, they’re within the context of the job you trained for and the skill drills you’ve been doing for months.

Collaboration requires more flexibility. The person who called the plays yesterday may need to fall back and take direction from the person who’s been sitting on the bench, observing the action and formulating a strategy.  Collaboration is about bringing unique skills and talents together in a flexible way that supports the task at hand.

Teamwork: Regulation playbook
Collaboration: Evolves over time

Teamwork is successful when everyone knows the rules of the game and the competition adheres to the same regulations.  But when the game is constantly changing, you need the ability to adapt your formation.  Collaboration allows you to change your structure to support the situation, which is often in flux.

Teamwork: Do what the coach tells you to
Collaboration: Figure out what needs to be done

Teams operate in a hierarchical structure.  The coach is in charge, and the reporting structure is from the top down.  Collaboration is more fluid.  The coach may not even be in the same location as the players, and they may or may not understand all the positions.  True collaborators require support, but they’re self-directed in their problem solving and creativity.

Teamwork: Crush your opponent
Collaboration: Contribute to the big picture

Sports teams want the other guys to feel some pain.  You either win or you lose.  This mentality explains why so many companies struggle to get their employees to share ideas and resources.  The win/lose mindset doesn’t easily turn itself off when you’re dealing with coworkers.

Collaboration requires a different approach.  It’s about coming together and putting your best ideas into the service of something bigger than yourself.

I’ve decided that now I actually like sports analogies.  We’re going to run our company like a synchronized swimming team: great music, sparkly suits and keeping time with our teammates as we gracefully twist and twirl our way to gold.

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McLeod & More, Inc. is an international training and consulting firm specializing in sales and leadership.  McLeod & More President Lisa Earle McLeod is an author, columnist, keynote speaker and business consultant. Her newest book, The Triangle of Truth, has been cited as the blueprint for “how smart people can get better at everything.” Visit for a short video intro.   Copyright 2010 Lisa Earle McLeod.  All rights reserved.

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