Management lessons from ultimate frisbee

As those of you who follow my other feeds know, I’ve taken up playing ultimate frisbee again with the Manhattan Ultimate league. While the main benefit is getting back into shape after two years of class-induced neglect, I also really enjoy playing ultimate because of the philosophy baked into the rules of the game.

If you’re not familiar with ultimate, the rules are pretty simple. On a field with two end zones, two teams of seven line up, one on each end line. One team starts the point by throwing the disc to the other. The disc can only be advanced by throwing to a teammate – once you catch the disc, you can’t continue running, and must hold a pivot foot stationary. If a pass is not completed, the other team takes over going the other way. Score by catching a pass in the end zone.

These rules make ultimate a truly team-oriented sport. An individual player can’t take over the game single-handedly, the way they do in basketball or football or baseball, because every pass involves two players. The way for an individual player to excel is to make their teammates better. When they don’t have the disc, they can help their teammates by getting wide open, or by rescuing poorly thrown passes with great catches. Once they catch the disc, their teammates don’t have to get as open because a good thrower will put it right into their hands away from the defender.

The best teams use everybody on the field, creating spacing with different people going in different directions. For instance, because I’m tall and relatively fast, I often run downfield routes, where my teammates can just put the disc up high and expect me to either out-run or out-jump my defender. Other teammates who have more agility dart in and out with underneath routes. Players who have good throwing skills hang back to give their teammates an easy throw when they get in trouble. You need a good mix of skills on the field working together to achieve success.

What’s interesting to me is the management lessons that can be learned from ultimate frisbee. Different sports lend themselves to different management practices. Football is a typical hierarchy, with a coach and a quarterback leading the troops in precision maneuvers. Basketball is like a design firm, with individual superstars able to freelance their way to excellence. I think ultimate frisbee is a great model for understanding the distributed management style necessary for knowledge workers, where everybody has their own expertise to contribute.

Like the good ultimate player, good managers of knowledge workers make their employees and coworkers look good by setting things up to be easy for them. They know their coworkers’ strengths and weaknesses and find ways to accentuate the strengths and minimize the weaknesses (like me running deep in ultimate where I can use my height and speed, without worrying as much about my weaker throwing skills). They don’t need to take credit for themselves, because they know that the team being more successful is credit enough. Returning to my current non-zero-sum theme, they realize that “growing the pie” of success will reward them far more than trying to grab a bigger share of credit for the existing “pie”.

Bad managers, on the other hand, are playing the zero-sum game, trying to make themselves look good at the expense of their employees. They are the ones who take personal credit for anything their group does, but makes sure to blame mistakes on their employees. The ultimate frisbee equivalent would be prima donnas who, while having superior skills, yell at their teammates about making mistakes, and making them miserable. Soon enough, their teammates stop caring and stop running as hard, and the prima donna has created a self-fulfilling prophecy of bad teammates.

Another interesting parallel between ultimate and management is that it takes time for teams to jell. While it’s fun to play pickup games in ultimate where you choose sides and go, teams improve immeasurably by playing together and learning each other’s tendencies. You learn which routes people like to run, which throws your teammates have (which influences which routes you run when they have the disc), how to cover for each other on defense, etc. And each team and each combination of players is different – in this league, our team has actually been suffering from having too many subs for each game, as the team can’t quite settle into a rhythm because each point has a different combination of players.

A good manager needs the same sort of time to make their team most efficient. It takes time to learn how different team members think, how best to work with them and persuade them. Building a team is a long process, as each person needs to develop trust and respect for their teammates, and find a role for themselves within the team, a place where they can specialize in a way that plays to their strengths. Following Katzenbach’s formula, they must also develop a common group purpose and accountability, such that they believe in the team and will do what is necessary to make the team successful, rather than looking out for themselves in a zero-sum way.

As an aside, I just re-read the Katzenbach post and realized that good ultimate frisbee teams match up perfectly with his criteria for teams: small number (7 on the field), complementary skills (handlers, mids, and deeps), common purpose and performance goals (scoring and winning), common approach (teams that are successful work together in a coherent fashion), and mutual accountability (it’s almost funny how many people on an ultimate team try to take the blame after a close loss – everybody focuses on the mistakes they made that cost the team a couple points).

I’m not saying all managers should go out and take up ultimate frisbee (okay, that’d actually be kind of cool), but I did find it interesting that this mindset of non-zero-sum thinking about management had me seeing the same lessons so clearly on the ultimate frisbee field. This may just be another example of me taking a single perspective and seeing it everywhere, but I think that ultimate frisbee may be a good exemplar for truly distributed management techniques, the sort that would be appropriate in a knowledge worker economy.

2 thoughts on “Management lessons from ultimate frisbee

  1. I’ve learned more about management and motivation by playing football into college than I ever did by working or getting my Masters. There is no better way to train on how to deal with responsibility, teamwork, trust, and winning and losing. Every kid should be involved in team sports, we produce better adults that way.

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