Thursday, 7 January 2010

The Squash League

During my younger and fitter days I played squash. My club had a squash league which most of the players joined – whether they were county standard or huff-and-puff standard like me. The fact that most people participated, and enjoyed the leagues, was a testament to how important measurement was to us all. We WANTED to know how good or bad we were. We NEEDED the motivation of playing better players and winning games against our peers. We CRAVED the practice that would make us better.

Such enthusiasm is in marked contrast to how most of us perceive measurement and keeping score in a work situation. So what’s the difference?

Firstly, the squash leagues were designed to measure like with like. If you got put in a league that was too difficult you lost games and slid down the leagues until you found your level. Equally good players rose through the leagues until they found worthy opponents. I never had to be humiliated by playing county players and they never had to waste their time while I repeatedly ran to the corners to fetch the ball. We compared ourselves against similar standards. This is important. If we want measurement to be effective at work we have to be careful how we compare measures. A salesperson working in a complex and difficult market would be best compared to others in a similar situation, whether internal or external to the organisation. Comparing her to someone working in a boom market isn’t going to produce good results; more likely cause resentment and be de-motivating. Whereas comparing people in the same division, or selling the same product, or if the section is large organising results by “leagues” can create positive competition. I’ve seen this work well and badly in large organisations.

The second difference is the way the scores are used. In my squash club I was accepted as a member by good, bad and indifferent players alike. There was healthy competition and encouragement to improve through coaching and “club nights.” Club nights put players of all abilities together so better players could help weaker players. It was done in a spirit of fun, learning and mutual cooperation. Beginners, older players and plain lousy players were accepted just as much as the stars.

Thirdly, there was no blame culture. No one got reprimanded for losing a game. No one got taken aside because they had lost 6 games in succession. No one was ever asked to leave the club because their volleying was too poor. As a result we all participated enthusiastically and eagerly awaited the results of each league reshuffle.

So how can this be replicated at work?

Working hard to engender a no-blame culture is important. If measurement is used as a rod to beat people with, there should be no surprises when it isn’t embraced enthusiastically. Creating a learning environment is also important. If we wanted to climb the leagues, we invested in coaching and hours of practice.

Measurement pointed out the difference between our aspirations and actuality – and work is no different. Improvement comes through taking appropriate actions, such as training, coaching, or doing more of something.

I hate to think where I might be in the squash leagues now – even if I could find my old racquet. But the lesson in improvement and measurement is useful, and doesn’t require nearly so much huff and puff!


  1. Caroline - great blog. Too often in corporations a "no blame" culture is a euphimism for "we don't really care...", but I think you have hit the nail on the head. People also take it very personally when they are ask to move down the league in work, but the manner in which that is often done by management is destructive rather than constructive, resulting in the individual leaving the company (which ironically is often the company's intention!

  2. Hi Paul

    The Games Corporates Play, huh? Some interesting thoughts come out of making high performance more fun, though, whether inside or outside of the Corporate scene. Thanks for your comments.

  3. Excellent stuff - competitive sport is a great way to measure achievement.

    I completely agree that the philosophy which designs the league, club or business structure has a big impact on how participants respond to the feedback they get from measuring results.

    In a closed, static structure success or failure is determined by position in the hierarchy, whereas in an open, fluid system it's measured relative to individual starting points. I think the latter has huge advantages for the simple reason that it isn't absolute. As you say it enables all participants within the group to progress and raises overall standards.

    It does however raise some difficult political questions about how far the principle can be applied effectively (eg how regularly should there be testing in schools?) and what this says about our society (ie are we all born equal?).

    That said, I think squash is a killer sport and I'm a bit in awe of anyone who is willing to punish themself in that way!

  4. Oranje - two interesting questions - testing in schools and how our society views differences. Clearly we are all born with different talents, and issues (as the Asperger's Syndrome post suggests), yet as a sophisticated society there is opportunity for everyone to excel in their chosen field. I'm not up to speed with how regularly children are tested these days, but I certainly remember my own school reports being a helpful guide as to where I excelled and where my interest strayed .... Whilst education is certainly not a game, having more understanding of bringing out children's strengths seems a good start and objective, quantifiable tests are a way of achieving that.

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