Lessons from Sports #738: Alignment and Long-Term Planning

Balancing short- and long-term strategic planning is hard largely because they often conflict. A great example of this is when the Green Bay Packers drafted Aaron Rodgers in 2005. It was a shocking choice, because the Packers already had a future Hall of Fame quarterback in Brett Favre, and they had short-term needs at other positions. Furthermore, Rodgers was far from a sure thing. The Packers were sacrificing their immediate effectiveness for a potential Favre replacement 3-5 years in the future.

In sports, part of how you enforce the discipline of balancing the short- and long-term is by separating the roles of coach (short-term) and general manager (long-term). Andrew Brandt, the Packers former vice president of player finance, described how this dynamic played out when choosing to draft Rodgers:

We get to 24 and we got one name staring at us, and it’s Aaron Rodgers. We know we have the most durable quarterback in football [Favre], so I can just sense [in] the room to my right were the coaching rumblings where you could just sense they’re like “Oh my God, are we really going to do this? We’re going to take a player that can’t help us this year, maybe not next year, maybe not the year after, maybe never.” There was some rumbling. And I sense what was going on to my left side, which is more management oriented, and it was the same thing they always say, which is trust the board. We put in all our scouting, we’re going to take the best player available. And obviously management won out over coaching. It was one of those ultimate best-player-available decisions. But you look at the Green Bay Packers that year, that’s the last thing you would think that we’d pick.

It turned out to be the right choice. Rodgers replaced Favre three years later (while Favre was still good), has been two Super Bowls (winning one), and is almost surely a future Hall of Famer.

What would it look like if more organizations (especially smaller ones) had separate roles responsible for short- versus long-term planning?

(The article above is also an excellent case study on the imperfect science of decision-making.)

In other sports news, the historically great Golden State Warriors eliminated the Portland Trailblazers from the NBA playoffs, 4-0. Afterward, the Blazers star point guard, Damian Lillard (who had an outstanding series), commented on how “together” and “on the same wavelength” the Warriors play.

It’s extraordinary commentary coming from a great basketball player on a very good team. At this level, every team invests heavily on getting everybody on the same page, and all good teams achieve that. But there are clearly different levels of alignment, and when you reach higher levels, you play at higher levels. I think it speaks powerfully to the importance of alignment, which most organizations in other fields do not value as highly as professional sports teams.

(As an aside, my friend, Pete Forsyth, wrote a great article about Lillard, free licenses, and Wikipedia in 2014. I recently helped make Pete famous in the Oregon sports world this past week when the above, Creative Commons-licensed photo I took of him sporting his Lillard jersey at a Warriors game appeared in this Willamette Week article this past Monday.)

Baselines and Narratives

I haven’t read Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes’s Shattered about Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential campaign, but I have found the reviews and their virality fascinating. Here’s what the New York Times, National Review, and Rolling Stone had to say. The Amazon.com reviews are mediocre at best.

There is something lurid and compelling about reading a retrospective about a failed campaign. It’s like looking at a train wreck — it’s hard to tear your eyes away, even if you want to. Unlike a train wreck, however, it’s hard to assess how “bad” Clinton’s campaign actually was, and what I’m reading about the book doesn’t seem to help.

In my experience working with organizations and their leaders, including some very good ones, there is a baseline of dysfunction that would surprise most people. Internal effectiveness and good strategy matter (which is what keeps me employed), but they’re not the only factors that contribute to success. You have to be very careful about attribution bias, especially when dealing with complex, systemic challenges.

So far, most of the retrospectives and commentary I’ve read have reeked of attribution bias.

The one thing that stuck out for me in reading the reviews were the points about Clinton’s lack of a clear narrative. The National Review, for example, wrote:

In Shattered, we learn that ten speechwriters, consultants, and aides had a hand in writing Clinton’s announcement speech, which unsurprisingly turned out to be a long, muddled mess. Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau, briefly brought in to help, concluded that the speech (and by extension, the whole campaign) “lacked a central rationale for why Hillary was running for president, and sounded enough like standard Democratic pablum that, with the exception of the biographical details, could have been delivered by anyone within the party.”

Again, I see this all the time working with leaders. It’s hard to identify a clear and compelling narrative and to stay on message, but it’s important. In their book, Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath attribute this challenge to the Curse of Knowledge. Effective leaders have lots of knowledge, but that knowledge can get in the way of telling a clear story.

Joe Dumars on Culture- and Team-Building

Adrian Wojnarowski did a fantastic interview with Hall of Fame basketball player and former General Manager, Joe Dumars, for his excellent podcast, Vertical Pod with Woj. Dumars was with the Detroit Pistons for 28 years as a player (where he won two championships) and as the architect of the 2004 championship team. He’s spent the past two years shadowing other basketball programs all over the world.

Here’s what Dumars had to say about wanting to build another team and the importance of building a culture:

What you look for in situations is the ability to build a culture as opposed to just the ability to build a team. For quite some time, part of building a really good team for us in Detroit, we also built a culture, a mindset, how everybody saw each other and how everybody saw us as a group, and I’m talking about everybody inside the organization. What appeals to me is to build a culture.

A culture is different than just building a team. A culture is everybody in the organization feeling a certain way about each other — from video to coaches to secretaries — everybody in this organization feeling it. I got that from my initial days of playing — guys like Chuck Daly, Isiah, Jack McCloskey, who was the GM at the time. You build a culture. There was a name for it — the Bad Boys — but beyond just that name, what I learned from that was, you have to have an identity. Not only do you have to have an identity, you have to embrace your identity. You can’t reluctantly accept who you are. You have to embrace it.

For me, that’s what appeals to building something next. To build a culture where everybody embraces who they are, are proud of it, and want to be a part of it. I think we did it as a player, I think we did that in 2000 with Ben, Chauncey, and all those goes, and that’s what appeals to me next. (00:58:47-01:00:35)

Woj asked Dumars what he’s taken away from his shadowing that he’d like to incorporate into his next team. Dumars’ response — participatory team-building:

The one thing I think I would take out of all this is some of the team-building things that teams do. You have to be careful with team-building. You can’t just come up with something that you want to do team-building wise that you and I come up with, but the team is like, “Uhh, we’ve got to go and do this.” A lot of time team-building, you’ve got to get the input from the players, what they want to do together. I’ve seen that in Europe, a little bit in college, a lot of people I talk to in the NBA.

I was so focused on, “Let’s build this thing to win the championship,” I was so focused on that, I never really paid a lot of attention to that. But for me, I like that. I think it does help in terms of the camaraderie, and it helps in terms of people seeing each other in a different light than just X’s and O’s, on the court, game, what’s your responsibility. I think it’s good to get away from that sometimes.

But I think it has to be done the right way. It can’t just be management-directed. I don’t think it can just be coach-directed. I don’t think it can be just organization-directed. I think it has to be maybe your captains and the coaches getting together as to what we want to do together. I’ve seen some of that, and I really like it. 01:01:35-01:03:05

Harold Ramis on Ghostbusters, Collaboration

My friend, Kate Wing, sent me this glorious oral history of the movie, Ghostbusters. My favorite line was from Harold Ramis, who said:

Aykroyd used to look at me, Rick, and Bill, and say, “Three directors, four writers, no waiting.” If you didn’t have a good idea, someone else would.

This was Kate’s reaction to the line:

Exactly — isn’t that the kind of team you want to be on? Not worried about looking the best or competing, just being part of a continuous fountain of good ideas.

Yes. This is exactly the kind of team I want to be on, and it’s the kind of team I’ve been fortunate to have been on several times.