Basketball and organizational performance …

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uss-nimitz-108622_640With several Blue Devils in the household, there’s always a fair amount of basketball talk around the holidays and we got into an interesting conversation yesterday about basketball and organizational performance. My dad was talking about Sports Illustrated’s top 10 basketball players of the decade earlier today (three are from Duke) and it reminded me of this article we discussed at work earlier this year, which is now very timely as I’m working on some research and writing on organizational performance…

“The No-Stats All Star”
in the New York Times features Shane Battier, a basketball player whose individual performance, based on the usual stats, is relatively unimpressive, but whose effect on his teams is statistically significantly positive. The article also highlights the Houston Rockets’ strategist who, based on his unconventional statistical analysis, made the surprising case to bring Battier to the Houston Rockets, which has proven to be an excellent strategic move. The article is great, albeit long. (sidenote: I especially love the part about how Battier is given way more statistical information than the rest of his teammates because he can process it and use it strategically – go Duke!!)

But on to my point, or my discussion at least … can we extrapolate what these teams have figured out in basketball to organizational performance? Are there individuals in organizations who are relatively unimpressive in their own right, perhaps who receive mediocre performance reviews, who have a significantly positive effect on their organizations? I’d say yes, and it is something most performance review systems undervalue. Most of us have worked with those “team players” who totally change the dynamic of their teams or organizations but who really don’t do too much for their own area. Perhaps they create excitement, resolve conflict, or simply make working together a little more fun. And almost all of us have witnessed the poisonous effects of one bad apple on a team or entire organization. They may even be considered critical because of their knowledge or skills, but their negative energy destroys the momentum of the group. Despite these significant effects these people have, the emphasis those effects have in individual performance reviews is minimal. And companies think much more about individuals when building teams than they do about the team interaction as a whole.

When we do assessments for our clients of their leadership teams as part of IT strategy projects or as a separate project, we look not only at individual performance and potential but also how the group is functioning together and how developing, removing or adding key positive or negative influencers will take the team to new levels of performance. Our clients see the value in taking it to this level, but the more provocative question that comes up from this article is how much we should evaluate individuals on their impact on team performance. How much “credit” should individuals receive for improving teams if their individual results are totally average? How do you measure that influence other than seeing what happens when the person is removed? And how do you reward that influence other than through group performance bonuses or profit sharing?

Back to basketball, the Rockets are struggling with many of the same questions. Being aware of and considering these performance implications is a big step, but I also hope organizations modify selection, development and performance management shift based on looking at teams as the system they are.