How Deep is Your Bench?

For sports fans, this is a fun time of the year.  The countdown to the Super Bowl is underway, college basketball is getting into full swing and the college football championship is a distant memory.

For me personally, I like the excitement of it all, but really have an affinity for college basketball.   However, the recent Alabama/Texas game really got my attention.

Congratulations to Alabama on their win.  But you have to admit, your heart had to go out for the Longhorns senior quarterback Colt McCoy, whose injury in the first quarter ended his college football career and forced a substitution with freshman quarterback Garrett Gilbert.

I read this online article the next day reviewing the perspective each of these players must have had in the moments following that game.  And that’s what made me think.

Can any one member of a team ensure its success?

One definition of a team is group of people conducting tasks that are high in complexity and have many interdependent subtasks.  This definition implies the importance of the role each player contributes.

This definition highlights an importance to develop depth, or bench strength across a team.   If each member’s contribution is part of an interdependent system, then it is essential that more than one player can contribute in the event of an unforeseen gap.

Some businesses embrace this concept and implement succession plans to ensure business expertise and/or key roles have a ready substitute.  While I strongly support this strategy, I encourage every team to consider at least some emphasis on developing a team who can step in and support one another with the skills, business relationships, and performance if and when your “go to” person cannot.

So how do you develop depth in your team?  Here are three practical steps to get you started:

1. Know what your team must do best.
The first thing to do is define what your team must be the best at.  What outcomes must your team produce to be successful?   This question forces you to know how your organization keeps score and how your team contributes to overall performance.

We often automatically think about the bottom line (and finances are the language of business).  However, teams impact the bottom line in many ways.  Is your team the primary interface with customers or volunteers?  Is your team responsible for the systems that support the organization?  Are you the production arm of the company?  Your answer to this question identifies where your depth must exist.

2.  Clearly identify the skills that get your team to success.
Once you know your key performance metrics, you must identify the skills that can produce those results.  This assessment goes beyond “great people skills” or “analytical skills”.  Every competitor needs those same skill categories.  Be specific.  What do “great people skills” look like for your team?  Define listening.  Demonstrate approachable.  Show outcomes of analytical thinking.  This in-depth skill assessment allows you to truly develop the skills [that count] on your team.

3. Develop a “what if” strategy.
Map out your team’s activities and the contribution each player typically provides.  For each crucial task, create a back-up plan – someone who can fill in when needed.  The key here is that you are not simply creating substitutes.  You are creating a team member who can successfully perform the tasks needed. 

There are several ways to execute this approach.  Periodically rotate various team members to give them a chance to perform when the entire team is not in crisis mode.  Like good sports teams, you must practice various “plays”, which over time will build confidence as team members perform tasks they may not regularly do.

The other benefit of this strategy is how it creates a building block for a potential succession plan.  While “what if” strategies are smart to have in place, you never know when circumstances beyond your control create a permanent loss on your team.  A breadth of skill and talent prepare you for the unexpected.  And that is critical in today’s competitive environment.

Now, back to the college football championship.  The University of Texas had a quarterback on the sidelines available when McCoy was injured.  And as difficult as it must have been, McCoy cheered, encouraged and supported his replacement.    I don’t know how “ready” Gilbert was when it counted most.  The win didn’t happen but then again, it is a team effort during the entire game.

But you must admit, it is certainly is a lesson in bench strength.

Are you creating that depth in your team?

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