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Fundamentals for the win

Yesterday the Cleveland Cavs played the Los Angeles Lakers. If you're not a basketball fan, you probably don't care. But it was an exciting game with a lot of emotion in it—and around it.

LeBron James drives to the basket
Creator: Tony Dejak | Credit: AP

The Lakers won the championship last year and have the NBA's best player, LeBron James (pictured above). The Cavs (my hometown team) don't have any superstars. What they do have is a ton of energy, grit, and a great team culture.

With no superstars to take over games, our winning relies on teamwork, defense and hustle. So, back to last night's game vs the Lakers. The game was incredible. It was gritty. It was messy at times. It was emotional. And the second half was back-and-forth.

Cavs' announcers: John Michael, Austin Carr, and Angel Gray.

In the fourth quarter, we made a few costly errors. The Cavs' announcers kept hammering the same message:

  • We need to get our fundamentals right.

  • The fourth quarter is all about the basics and doing those the right way.

  • We're making too many small errors and it's adding up.

  • You can't beat the champs unless your fundamentals are solid.

They were talking about protecting the basketball, talking on defense, rebounding with intensity, and running the right offense. The basketball basics. In the end, a combination of these errors—and LeBron James playing like a monster—cost us the win.

I truly believe everything we need to know about teams we can learn from the NBA. Here's one lesson: you have to get the fundamentals right to reach your true potential.

Focus on the fundamentals

I've worked with teams where I couldn't even comprehend the technical work they did. These people are smart. Like really, really smart. Even in layman's terms I was pretty lost.

It does make me chuckle when the challenges these smartypants are facing seem to be happening because of pretty obvious reasons.

I had a manager once who easily rattled off some biosecurity governance and investigation processes, but couldn't answer questions about his team's strengths, communication styles, or even their meeting structure. He had a team of absolute experts that were struggling to do the basics. And it was affecting their performance.

Know the people in your team

Every team is made up of people. Sounds simple, right? But as we know, people are incredibly complex and emotional, and we're not always rational. We're also unique, so what works for one person might not work for others. Teams should always take the time to get to know each other—not just learning about the role the person does—but who the person is. This doesn't have to be complicated.

Here are some ways to get to know your team:

  • Share the answers to Lencioni's 4 trust building questions (Where were you born? How many siblings do you have and where do you fall in the order? What was your first job? What's a challenge you overcame growing up?).

  • Make the time for activities that you can do together as a team that have nothing to do with your operational role: morning teas, Stuff quizzes or make up your own, ice breakers, baby photo contests, random challenges (like who can build the largest tower with spaghetti and marshmallows).

  • Talk the same language about your style and strengths - using a tool like Gallup CliftonStrengths can be extremely helpful for people to recognise their own, their colleagues', and their team strengths.

  • Celebrate together: birthdays, cultural festivals, sports victories, personal achievements.

Communication, communication, communication

Communication is an absolute foundation for any relationship. We're always communicating. The question is: are we communicating well?

People have different communication styles. Being aware of your own style (and the +/- of it) is a great starting point. Then, understanding and appreciating your teammates' style is step two. There are a ton of free (and paid) communication assessments that can help you get a better understanding of our communication diversity. Reach out if you're interested and we can share some!

Make time to communicate. All teams need time to download, question, share, debate, and celebrate together. Create specific times and events where your team has the space, time, and bandwidth to communicate. Recurring meetings are a great grounding habit for teams and you can decide the frequency and length that's appropriate. In our daily stand-ups we answer four questions (though these can be used anytime a team gets together)

  • What did you work on yesterday?

  • What's your goals for the day?

  • Do you have any blockers?

  • What help do you need?

Invite conflict into your team. Patrick Lencioni defines fear of conflict as one of the five reasons teams fail. Healthy and safe conflict is an essential for innovation and creating better, more robust ideas. But constructive conflict requires trust. And trust happens when you feel psychologically safe within your team. And your psychological safety is strengthened when you know and appreciate the people you work with.

Regardless if you're a professional athlete or a workplace professional, there are some common fundamentals every team needs. It doesn't matter if you have the LeBron James of [insert your field here] on your team, your team still can't skip the building blocks.


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