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Cosmic Conference 2021 - Session 2: What we can learn from (E) sports Teams

The Future of Teams conference, which was held on July 6, 7, and 8, 2021, was our second annual edition of the Cosmic Conference. Hosted by Marilyn Zakhour, CEO & Founder of Cosmic Centaurs, the conference had all-star guests share their insights, opinions, and perspectives about the future of teams.

Sports and (e) sports teams remind us that success is driven by collaboration. These teams are great to study and learn more about leadership, performance, culture and teamwork. The second session of the Future of Teams Conference explored the learnings from a few sport and e-sport teams, as well as two leaders who study and coach teams.

To watch the full session, visit our YouTube channel.

About the speakers:

  • Evelyn Tan is a PhD Researcher at the University of York, UK, under the Centre for Doctoral Training in Intelligent Games and Game Intelligence (IGGI). Her research focuses on team dynamics in virtual teams, specifically within online competitive team-based games.

  • Madiha Naz, better known for her gamer name ‘Madi’, is the first Pakistani female to pursue Esports professionally as a career, and is also currently the team captain for the first all-female MENA League of Legends at UAE’s leading esports organization, Galaxy Racer Esports.

  • Sami Moutran is a team captain who played on his university basketball team, founded and played on a rugby team and even started a championship winning endurance racing team. He has also spent the last 18 years in marketing including numerous roles at Memac Ogilvy before moving to his current role as Senior Business Marketing & Communications Director at TikTok.

  • Tom Marsden, a team captain, is the CEO of Saberr, a software company with a mission of “transforming teamwork”. Saberr is a digital platform designed to nudge leaders and teams into routines and habits that help develop a great team.

What makes a great team?

To start off, Marilyn asked the team captains what makes a great team?

In response to this question, Sami shared three fundamentals: shared objective, communication and trust, saying “The shared objective is not the obvious winning goal, but rather the strategy that’s going to get you there. It has to be super clear and simple so people can buy into it.” As for communication, he pointed out that it’s different whether you’re on the pitch or in the office.

“Communication in the office is often a soft thing where we have to be really nice, and this frustrates me. Whereas in a sports environment, communication is candid, clear and concise”, Sami said.

Moving to the last element, trust, he clarified, “I don't think we talk often enough about trust. It’s the underlying trust that you are the right person to do your job. You’re not here to question, you're here to deliver what you've been asked to do, and I trust that you're going to do it.”

Echoing what Sami had said, Evelyn explained that short term and long term teams differ slightly in success requirements, but added that all types of teams share the core conditions for success: having a clear purpose and a clear goal. However, the principal condition according to her is having team players. Being selfish, especially in competitive games, can lead to team failure, she noted.

Madiha, who also leads a competitive (e)sports team added that when building trust, teams need to be comfortable in knowing that sometimes, the entire team must put their trust into one person. “You revolve the game around one person and you just put that trust in and they live up to it”, she said.

“I agree with everything she said, but when it comes to e-sports, when a person has earned the right to be a bit selfish, it's okay”, replied Madiha. Your team members have to put that trust in you. That person has a chance of proving themselves, if they deserve the right to be selfish or not. That happens in my team a lot because we have such great talent. You revolve the game around one person and you just put that trust in and they live up to it.

Moving finally to Tom, he responded, “I massively agree with Sami in terms of his three points, but I would add another dimension which is diverse thinking.” For Tom, diverse thinking is vital for breakthrough innovation and creative problem solving.

However, Tom issued a warning based on research, “If people don't have some alignment of values or an ability to have tolerance for each other's values, then sometimes, diverse thinking can be conflicting as opposed to being reinforcing.” In other words, tolerance is necessary to benefit from cognitive diversity.

On the importance of value alignment/tolerance

Triggered by Marilyn, Tom shared an anecdote he came across during his work. It is about two colleagues who had very divergent values around authority and how they came to understand each other. The person who values influencing others and having some power had difficult teenage years and served in the army to add structure and discipline to his life. He said this is where his love for structure comes from. On the other hand, the colleague who values autonomy in doing his job, returns it to an incident that happened when he was little. He lived in a Communist area where his father was taken by the secret police. He has had a problem with authority ever since. To conclude, Tom said that disclosing such information can be a powerful way to uncover and understand each other.

Sami built on this point saying, “This makes me think of why we need to have the right person for the role versus the right person who fits that role. It's something we see in racing. We struggled a lot because regardless of the ego of a racing driver you need to be completely self-centred and believe you're the best driver on the planet, even though I'm not, I'll put that out there. But for the rest of the team, that’s not the case. We had the same group of people for 20 years and we started to realize that it was down to the mindset of each of those people and what they felt their role was on that team. You had people with critical jobs like putting a tire on the car. That doesn't sound like a big job but it's an important job. We had one guy who felt that getting that tire on quicker than everybody else was his objective. We realized very quickly that his mindset was completely wrong. It was about getting it done right in the timeframe required, not being the hero in that moment. So I agree with Tom that it's really important to have the right person for the role versus the right person who fits that role.”

Adding to Sami’s point, Tom said, “One of the beauties of sports is there's a clear objective usually, which is winning, that galvanizes people. When people have different values, we need to ask how we can create a shared objective that we're trying to achieve? In that respect, there's a natural advantage of creating team identity, but there are different ways of winning clearly.

From the the pitch, to working from home

There are similarities in how esports players and remote workers collaborate without co-location. To learn more, Marilyn asked Madiha to give context on how she translates what she’s learned in sports teams into not only work but also into distributed teams. She specifically asked an audience question “Have you ever been in a situation where you did something selfish and had to regain trust and what steps you took to rebuild it? Talk to us about what it's like leading a team when you're not physically together. What are some of the ways in which you guys create a team dynamic and maintain a healthy culture?”

“We've been practicing online for more than a year and I can say it's much easier”. Referring to one of the fundamentals Sami shared, Madiha believes that communication is much more difficult in virtual meetings. “When you're in front of someone, you're forced to communicate how you feel and share everything on your mind. When you're online, communication isn't that clear”, she added. When training with her esports team, Madiha said that they connect on a personal level because of the considerable amount of time they spend together.

“Teams perform better when they know details about each other,” Marilyn said, highlighting that mutual knowledge gained from knowing each other is vital to the team’s success.

When Marilyn asked Sami the same question, he outlined four key learnings he carried forward from sports to corporate: understanding the objectives, clear communication and knowing your role, knowing your strengths as a team and double down, finally, knowing that momentary self glory doesn't compare to winning.

For example, “There's nothing I love more than a perfect lap on the absolute limit. The car is dancing and everything is just a hair away from going wrong. That's perfect, right? But in a race team that doesn't work because that's too risky. When you're doing a 24 hour race everything is supposed to work. The car needs to last for hours and the driver to stay healthy. As a driver with that ego we were talking about earlier, you have to swallow that. Every lap you have to remind yourself that this is a team game. That's how we, as a team, ended up winning,” he said.

To further clarify his point, Sami shared an analogy. While racing, team members do not question each other’s and their own capabilities. The strategy lead is responsible for the strategy, the tire team must change the tires in a specific timeframe and the driver must do his job. On the other hand, at the office, the opposite happens. Whenever the strategy lead comes with a new plan, employees suspect the company’s readiness to embark on this new project and encourage him/her to think this through for more time. “This is why I get so frustrated at work because, dude, you have the job you have because you're capable of doing it. That's why you're there.” The whole team is going to win but each has to do their own separate role.

What Sami had shared made Evelyn ask him about trust, “How did you get to that stage where at some point, I'm going to tell you this and I’m just going to do it because you trust that I know what I'm doing. I'm sure you didn't get there overnight.”

“It was a couple of years of learning”, he said. “Many races have failed massively. After 2014, I watched a documentary by Allan McNish, a racing driver, who said “I personally don't believe in luck. I think luck is an excuse for people who have failed in their mission to do something. If you do your preparation correctly, if you do the work, if you think about certain things or make the correct judgment on all the risks that you're going to take, and you stay out of the pits, you win the race. That's not luck, that's hard work.” That statement was a galvanizing moment for us where we realized that we need to assess every little detail. All we did before was worry about the driver, the hero”, he explained.

The Workforce Loneliness Epidemic

With Marilyn and Mark Mortensen discussing the roots of the increasing loneliness and isolation within the workforce and sharing some solutions in the previous session, Marilyn asked Evelyn, “Your research focuses on teams that form on a temporary basis. That's a very extreme case. But earlier, Mark Mortensen was talking about the fact that even before the pandemic, there was an epidemic of loneliness within our workforce. In organizations, we are spending less and less time in a stable team which is leading us to have no anchor, or no home room as he called it. Tell us, how do teams cope with that, and how do they manage to continue winning?”

Evelyn started by explaining that players of temporary teams don’t form personal connections with their teammates and they don’t intend to. She further said that friendships are only built offline or in games with repeated interactions and continued gameplay. According to her, it rarely happens in match-based games and if it does, it’s often related to the mutual knowledge concept where people connect on things beyond the game.

Tenets of Teamwork

Successful teamwork is one of the core outcomes for thriving teams. To learn more about how teams can improve their teamwork, Marilyn asked Tom, “With Saberr and all the research you do on the side of it, you spend a lot of time trying to deconstruct for teams. What are the ingredients, the rituals and the conversations? How do we build trust? We have a question from the audience that asks how do you build vulnerability? Another one is about ways to align mindsets. I feel that Saberr is good at breaking this down into pieces that teams have to become progressively good at. Talk to us about your perspective on the things that teams have to get right.”

Tom explained that teams should break down winning into smaller parts. “For a team in the workplace, one of the things we recognized is there are certain routines, habits and rituals that good teams do to actively work on themselves. This begins with taking the time to be clear on your purpose and the goals as a collective team. Often there are individual goals, but the team hasn't invested the time to get clarity on what the shared objectives are, or to come up with ground rules about ways of communicating with each other. Most teams don’t carve out regular time that is scheduled to reflect on how things are working, like agile retrospectives which create the space to say what's working well and what's not. We also found that even if a team hasn't got much to say, just having the space to share feedback and normalizing that conversation is a great activity. There are a range of routines that teams can get into which will just make them healthier. Understanding what it takes to win, breaking that out, working on the team as much as working on the work and getting those routines in place is really important.”

When Teams Don’t Win

Teams who spend time working on their dynamics may do so when things have succeeded, or when the team has experienced loss together. Marilyn then asked Sami and Madiha, to talk about how they overcome loss collectively. “Do you have a scenario where maybe you were the cause of the poor performance? Sami, maybe talk to us about the years before you started winning.”

“Going back to the 15th of July, 2014 at 11:45 AM, we were 13 laps ahead and the car just stopped.,” said Sami. “It was the fourth year in a row where we were leading and something had gone wrong. I've never been more pissed off with anything in my life. I just couldn't comprehend it. So, we had a really interesting moment where this team thought of how we are going to fix this. One of the core things I did was identify the two people that were going to galvanize this new team. Everybody will eventually jump back on here. The second thing was we had to approach everything differently and communicate it clearly. Everybody on the team arrived next year with branded t-shirts, they had phones so they could call home and an agenda of what was going to happen at home. We professionalized every detail. The team suddenly became the most important thing because we realized that it takes every piece of that puzzle to make this work,” said Sami.

Similarly to Sami’s team, Madiha shared that when her team loses, all players get emotional, but receive help to mentally move forward. They share feedback and ensure they review how they played to know where they had weaknesses and think of better strategies for future games. She added, “The biggest thing that gave me a mental shift when I moved into esports as a career, is even though it's a fun job, you have to give it your old seriousness. It's also very new in the region, so a lot of younger people don't understand that it's not just a cool job. You can't give it your bare minimum and expect to keep your job. It really shows when you lose who's not been putting their full effort in or who's been slacking off.”

On Managing Conflict

Looking for an answer to an age-old question, Marilyn asked, “Especially with people being distributed, what are some ways in which you look at managing conflict? We recently ran a research study where, to no surprise, 60% of the respondents think that face-to-face is the only way to manage conflict. Yet, we are now thrown into environments where we're going to be distributed or remote for a very long time.”

Tom explained that conflict must be reframed because there is ‘good conflict’. “Mark Mortensen stressed in the previous session the importance of psychological

safety in a team. The other half of what Amy Edmondson talks about is that psychological safety needs high standards where you're holding each other to account and you're challenging each other as well.”

To reach those high standards, Tom pointed out that you must be willing to have conflict and to challenge each other. “I think the first thing is to reframe conflict, the second thing is to carve out the time to be able to discuss things. Sometimes it's not a bad thing that we have time to reflect on our anger before we come and meet it in the room. Whilst I would definitely say, there are advantages to being able to deal with conflict face-to-face and I think it would be crazy to deny that there aren't, there are also advantages to dealing with conflict in a remote setting and you must know how to get the most out of it.”

Echoing what Tom shared, Marilyn said, “Conflict in teams and couples and relationships is a sign of love, because there's time you're willing to spend on this conversation as opposed to just walking away from it, which possibly is a lot easier, especially in remote settings. Conflict is what leads to dialogue and growth.”

Evelyn also added that setting norms when managing conflict is important in virtual settings. “I work as a virtual part-time mental coach for an esports team in Singapore. We had a session where they would give each other feedback. The key thing I told them is you guys need to talk to each other and not talk about each other. That starts to build that culture of having honest conversations about what's working and what's not working. You can do that in virtual teams or anywhere,” she said.

Audience questions

Moving to audience questions, Marilyn shared one, “How do you manage team dynamics when you notice that politics are creeping in?”

Sami referred to what Evelyn shared around direct conversations adding a personal experience, “I played rugby and I was fortunate enough to be selected for the Lebanese National Team. During the training camp, they did something that horrified me at first. On a daily basis over dinner, everybody had to pick out the name of somebody in the squad and stand up in front of everyone and talk to that person and say, “the one thing I wanted more from you today would have been X”. This took away any opportunity to speak about people behind their backs because you have to say it to the person's face. That's how you get rid of politics. One thing that I learned really quickly is that if you are listening to it, you're complicit to it. Don't think you're innocent. You could actually be more toxic than the person that's willing to speak. You’ve got to call people out.

Marilyn also shared another question from the audience to Madiha, “Are there any qualities that an esports captain should have that maybe aren't necessarily present in captains of more traditional sports or maybe in leaders of organizations that you think are unique and that we can learn from?

She answered that the leader of an esports team must be the one to call on when there is a mess up, even if they’re the one who’s causing it. The coach can only watch, but as a player, you can know who is exactly messing up while playing.

Rapid fire questions

At the end of every session, a series of rapid fire questions was asked to all our conference speakers:

Q: What's the skill that every leader needs to have today that maybe wasn't as important before?

A: Tom: Getting teams together, motivated fast

Evelyn: I agree with what Mark Mortensen said, perspective taking or the ability to

put yourself in the shoes of the other

Sami: Higher levels of trust

Madiha: Making sure everybody gets along

A: Tom: The Difference by Scott Pages

Evelyn: The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle

Sami: Winning! by Clive Woodward

Madiha: She preferred answering with a game instead of a book: Runescape

A: Tom: The sound of nature

Evelyn: FKJ’s new EP: Ylang Ylang

Sami: Thunderstruck by AC/DC Rock

Madiha: Ariana Grande & Dua Lipa

Q: What is the perfect team size?

A: Tom: Small

Evelyn: Small, probably five

Sami: Not big enough to allow for laziness and not small enough to be

overwhelming. It depends on the objectives of the team.

Madiha: Five

Q: The future of teams is?

A: Tom: Diverse & complex

Evelyn: Messy but interesting

Sami: Agile


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