In sports, business, campaigns, and life, the million-dollar question that leaders have asked themselves and their teams is “How do we get the most out of this group.” When all the skills and the work ethics are equal, what separates one team from another?

I’ve written before about joining a water polo team in my community and working to get up the the level of play I expect out of myself. I’ve been playing consistently for a year now and am only just getting to the point where I feel like I’m reaching my skill potential (despite apparently being among the 5 oldest players on a team of 20-30 people…yeah that was a shocker at 31). Something that has come with that growth as a player is a skill for observation that I lacked when I was playing in high school and college. The ability to observe and communicate more effectively knowing that I’m not as fast or as strong as I had been before.

This past weekend, my team hosted a tournament with other masters (aka post-high school) teams from across the Midwest. A few Chicago teams, Michigan teams, a Wisconsin team, and even one from Minnesota were in attendance and I got the chance to watch a lot of games back to back, getting an opportunity to study and see what set the great teams apart.

The answer is simple: when all other skills are equal, the teams that communicated often, effectively, and with force would inevitably come out on top. Not only were those teams able to identify and call out mismatches, allowing other teammates to come help an outmatched defender, but those teams were looking for opportunities to call things out. Whether it was the position of the ball, a switch on defense, a player left unguarded on offense, or an open lane for a shot, the great teams were the ones that not only communicated often but had made it habitual to their style of play.

It may sound strange, but that communication being habitual is not just important, it’s critical. Talking only goes as far as what the listener hears and perceives. Water polo is a chaotic sport where heads are going in and out of the water, and when you’re out of the water, there’s splashing, yelling, and someone across from you doing their best to either drown you or leave you in their wake. Using a common language that the listener can hear, perceive, and execute in a matter of moments saves time and could be the difference between a goal and a turnover.

At K2, we see this all the time with clients. Sometimes the simplest changes in the language they use internally or more frequent communications between different teams can streamline and resolve a number of problems they had previously dealt with. Creating regular connections on over-communicating internally helps ensure nothing falls through the cracks when staff are juggling many different priorities at once.

All these little things are what separates a good team from a great team. Or at least that’s what I’m telling myself as I try to find ways to soothe sore joints and old injuries.

-Justin Giorgio, Senior Account Director