In the relay race approach, each function completes its task before passing it on to the next function. In the rugby model, all players understand the status of the match at all times
There’s a concept of organizational ecology put forth by Franklin Becker and Fritz Steele back in 1995 (Workplace by Design) in which they discussed two different approaches that organizations may take as they work to create synergy and encourage interaction: The “relay race” model vs. the “rugby” model.
Relay Race: Traditional and Sequential
If you imagine a team working on a project, the group that employs the relay race model operates by having each function complete its work and then pass it on to the next function. As an illustration a team may be chartered and roles assigned but the process lumbers along as, for example, marketing conducts research, sends the results to the product design group, which then, only when finished, passes the results along to the engineering group which, when done, passes the information back to marketing. And on and on and on.
Rugby: Speed and Flexibility
In the rugby model, however, all players take the field at the same time and for the duration of the game. There is constant interaction as the team moves toward its goal and, as is the case in a rugby match, different players take the lead or employ a stronger approach at various stages throughout the game. The difference from the relay race approach is striking; in the rugby model the entire team is in the game for the whole time. All players participate in decisions and understand the status of the match at all times. Constant communication is crucial and not in a “let’s plan an update meeting” type of way but rather in a manner that is ongoing, spontaneous and ever evolving as the dynamics of play change.
The application of rugby to business and HR is one I’ve discussed before; there are components of the game and skill sets needed by the players that have interesting parallels to the workplace. Skilled rugby players must be constantly aware of shifting conditions; they must have the ability to recognize, interpret and respond to the game all while anticipating the moves that will come further on in the match. Sounds like what we expect from our employees and leaders.
That’s but one of the many reasons I find the rugby vs. relay race approach to collaboration and collocation so fascinating. With the complexity of today’s business environment, we recognize that we need to regularly assess, and possibly re-align, how we collaborate within our organizations. Our “teams” today are often cross functional and made up of highly specialized knowledge workers and experts as well as being diverse and geographically dispersed. Many organizations are well on their way to optimizing the productivity of such teams whether through the use of technology or understanding the importance of providing opportunities for socialization and connection to enhance cohesion and results.
But there are also departmental or functional teams, sometimes in one geographical location, that need to accomplish goals or innovate effectively through collaboration. When we dive down into a human resources department, as an example, there are advantages to be found if they adopt the rugby model. I’ve certainly seen HR departments running a relay race rather than playing rugby even while working on a shared and critical initiative: Employee Relations conducts research, passes on the results to the Recruiting Group which then adds some components and passes on the information to the Training & Development function which then loops back with Employee Relations to provide more information. And on and on and on.
As Becker & Steele explained, the goal is ʺto bring all the players in the process together as a team at the project’s inception”. I, for one, think there’s a better chance of victory in our organizations when we take that approach.
Or at least we can score a try.
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