The FINANCIAL -- "We play for each other.” This guiding philosophy of the 1990s US women’s national soccer team—as articulated by Anson Dorrance, its coach during the first half of the decade—propelled the squad to unparalleled success.
The team won the inaugural Women’s World Cup in 1991 and the first gold medal awarded to a women’s soccer squad at the 1996 Olympics. It concluded the decade by defeating China in the thrilling 1999 World Cup final.
The team did not just win the big games but dominated throughout the decade, compiling a remarkable record of 155 wins, 21 losses, and 9 ties while outscoring opponents by an average of three goals per game. “We wanted to dominate, to crush every single team every single minute of every single game, as individuals and as a team,” said Michelle Akers, one of the star players, according to BCG.
The team was notable not just for its victories. The players redefined the role of women in sports, fighting for gender equality, equal pay, and the reputation of women’s soccer. They willingly subjected themselves to brutal training and conditioning sessions in order to attain those goals.
“They can be credited with nothing less than the founding of women’s soccer as an international game,” wrote Sally Jenkins in The Washington Post. “The worst that could be said of them was that they were joyous carousers. They were one of the few things left in sports you could watch without suspicion.”
How many businesses and organizations today have been equally dominant? How many can say that their employees truly “play for each other” and for a higher purpose? In our experience, not many. To be sure, the US squad had stars, such as Akers and Mia Hamm, but the stars themselves attributed their success to team alchemy, according to BCG.
Playing for each other is what happens at effective organizations. In these institutions, people cooperate—they seek group success over individual attainment and accomplish more than the sum of their individual achievements. Unfortunately, this happens infrequently because few organizations are designed to promote cooperation.
A BCG approach called smart simplicity unlocks organizational effectiveness by systematically encouraging cooperation. While hard to achieve, cooperation is easy to see in the success of such dominating sports teams as the Golden State Warriors, the New England Patriots, Bayern Munich, and the All Blacks, New Zealand’s national men’s rugby team.
We chose sports teams as the canvas to show how other organizations can promote cooperation and improve performance because of sports’ consistent rules and binary outcomes. We chose the US women’s soccer team of the 1990s, specifically, because it was arguably more successful for a longer period than any team in any other sport.