Smells like team spirit – what sports and engineering teams have in common

Main illustration: Kyle Benson

There is something unique about the joy of being on a high-functioning, high-achieving team – and that goes as much for a sporting team as a professional one.

We borrow a lot of the words and concepts we use to describe our engineering teams from the world of sports – from huddles and scrums to sprints and even goals, the terminology resonates from the pitch to the office.

However, we rarely stop to think about the deeper parallels between the two spheres.

I play rugby where I’ve seen exactly what it takes to build up a team out of individuals – the preparation, the analysis, the commitment, the growth of camaraderie and trust between teammates. My time as an engineering manager at Intercom has reinforced for me the parallels between team sports and being part of a successful engineering team.

Preparation and analysis

When you think of being part of a sports team, you instinctively think about the thrill of the match, the excitement of clashing with opponents in a competitive environment. But in reality, most of your time is spent practicing, preparing for the games ahead and analyzing the challenge posed by your rivals.

The preparation and analysis is critical to ensuring you build the best possible products

It’s all that unglamorous time on the training pitch that builds the sense of being a team, which culminates in those performances in competitive games.

That process has some parallels to the day-to-day routine in an engineering organization – the preparation and analysis is critical to ensuring you build the best possible products.

The incentives for me to join a rugby club and the joy I get from my engineering work are driven by the same things – a desire for continuous growth and learning, acting on meaningful feedback, being proud of my work and iterating towards success.

When at training, I put my heart and soul into every drill. I get up after every tackle determined to go harder, listen to any advice from coaches or teammates, and practice, practice, practice. The same goes at work, where I commit to taking on constructive feedback, always focusing on the goal, knowing where I need to improve, and yes, more practice, practice, practice.

Support from teammates

One of the things about sport is the way it exposes weaknesses and highlights strengths – your legs can only run so fast, you can only kick so far, you can only tackle so hard, and that will all get found out on the pitch in the heat of a match.

It is that balance that helps us achieve more as a team than we could accomplish as individuals

This is where the dreaded imposter syndrome can become a real problem, especially when joining a new team. It can be a very vulnerable time – you don’t know the organization or your teammates well, you can feel like a drain on teammates because you are relying so heavily on their support, and your fear of failure is particularly acute as you feel the weight of fresh expectations.

But being part of team means building on our collective strengths to minimize our individual weaknesses, and great teammates will quickly see your strengths. It’s about achieving a balance between the different members of the unit. On the rugby field, I would love to be a speedy winger able to run an amazing line and score a try, but my legs just don’t have that speed. Instead, I can put all my effort into doing what I’m good at and enabling others to make those runs.

That sense of complementarity is also evident in the best engineering teams – we rely on each other for the skills we may not have so we can form a truly functional team. It is that balance that helps us achieve more as a team than we could accomplish as individuals.

Collective action will bring greater rewards

That unique sense of collective achievement is what is so rewarding about being on a highly functioning team. Because not only can you achieve more as part of a team, there are some things you can only achieve as part of a team. Front CEO Mathilde Collin has echoed this in her own reflection on building the Front team.

It’s often easy to underappreciate just how special team spiritcan be

Central to all amazing teams is collaboration, trust and passion. This means a team will be able to grow together in the knowledge that everyone is trying their best, trying to help one another and putting their passion into everything the team is trying to achieve.

There’s no better time to see this team spirit than when a deadline is looming and the team pulls together, having frank and open conversations on struggles and potential strategies on next steps. This contributes to great decision making, team alignment and collaboration. The learning and support never ends, instead it adapts as the team grows and matures.

When we discuss team spirit, it’s often easy to underappreciate just how special it can be. Whether it’s on the pitch or in the office, being a part of a team gives you the feeling that you are contributing to something greater than the sum of its parts, that you are realizing your potential in ways that you couldn’t do alone. In sport and in work, achieving your goals may be the result, but it’s the journey that builds up to those goals that brings the ultimate satisfaction.

If you’re interested in joining the engineering team to help build Intercom, check out our current openings here ?
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