Relentlessly Doing Your Job

As painful as it is for me to write anything laudatory about the Boston Celtics, they are a very good, well-coached team. The common refrain, given that they’re missing their best two players, is that they have been performing above expectations. However, that may be unfair, as Zach Lowe’s article, “Brad Stevens and the Celtics have a special brand of toughness,” explains.

Brad Stevens, Boston’s brilliant coach, cited the following definition of “toughness”:

Toughness is being able to physically and emotionally perform your task through any condition.

and added (emphasis mine):

If things are going really well in a home game, do you get caught up in that, or do you keep playing the right way? If things are going like they were in the second quarter last night [when the Sixers went on a run], do you say, “I have a job to do and I’m going to do it, and I don’t care that everyone is going nuts over this [Joel] Embiid dunk?” That is toughness. It sounds cliché, but the hardest thing to do is stay in the moment and do your job.

Lowe remarks:

This is a fierce team. No one is afraid to shoot, or venture outside his proven skill set — something almost everyone has had to do since [Kyrie] Irving’s knee surgery. They give maximum effort every second. It is a focused effort; they rarely veer out of scheme.

Gather enough tough players and it can have an exponential effect on a team’s collective toughness. They inspire each other to more intense fury. They hold everyone accountable; even brief moments of lethargy and weakness are unacceptable. Wyc Grousbeck, the team’s owner, compares them to a crew team rowing together: They feel when one guy is giving only 90 percent, and either push him harder or eventually replace him. “This is my favorite Celtics team ever, in terms of energy, camaraderie and underdog spirit,” Grousbeck said.

[Danny] Ainge picks the players, but Stevens is the arbiter of playing time. The (deserved) fawning over his stoic demeanor and play-calling genius has obscured another fundamental truth: Stevens is something of an old-school hard-ass. “If guys aren’t doing their jobs,” [Al] Horford said, “they just won’t play.”

Kevin Durant makes a similar point in Baxter Holmes’s article about the Golden State Warriors, “When The Dubs Hit The Turbo Button”:

That’s what is tough about the NBA — to focus every possession. That’s hard as s— to do. It’s not the physical part. It’s not making 3s. It’s not how many sets can we run, how many dunks can we get. It’s about staying focused every play.

I’ve written before (in a non-sports context) about the importance of constant striving and execution (versus strategy) to high-performance. It’s a theme that seems to come up over and over and over again in sports as well.

Here are more gems from Lowe’s article on Brad Stevens’s leadership style and the culture he’s created in Boston.

On communication:

In Boston’s seventh game of the season, Shane Larkin failed to pursue a loose ball along the left sideline. Stevens removed Larkin at the next stoppage. He didn’t play again until garbage time. “I learned right away,” Larkin said. “If you don’t get a 50-50 ball, you are coming out.”

Stevens didn’t upbraid Larkin. He approached him calmly and told Larkin why he had been taken out. In evaluating players, both during games and in film sessions, Stevens is careful with language, according to coaches, players and team higher-ups. He focuses on actions: We didn’t get this rebound. You should have made this rotation earlier. The criticism is never about the player’s character. No one is labeled lazy or stupid or selfish. Stevens simply describes what did or did not happen, and what should happen next time.

That has gone a long way in securing buy-in, players say. They feel Stevens is with them, even as he holds them — and himself — to almost impossible standards. That is a hard balance to strike. It is not a show, either.

On accountability:

After losses, Stevens often approaches Ainge and apologizes for “blowing it,” Ainge said. “He is always saying that,” Ainge said. “Honestly, it’s kind of like listening to players blame themselves. He’s like a player. He never whines about the players, just himself.”

Even private kvetching about players among coaches and front-office staff can undo a team. Rumors start. Factions develop. That hasn’t happened in Boston.

On culture:

There are no bells and whistles to Boston’s culture. They don’t regularly host famous guest speakers or take field trips. They’ll organize occasional team dinners, but there are no ritualistic, hours-long nights of wine, food and storytelling. Stevens, Ainge and the veteran players have created an environment of serious, hard, consistent work.

Stevens essentially has banned rookie hazing. He wants rookies to take as much ownership of the team as the stars — and to voice their opinions. (This is the same reason Stevens declines to name captains.) Pranks waste time. He was not thrilled last season when culprits unknown filled Brown’s car with popcorn. “Oh, Brad was not happy,” Brown said. “He had my back.”

“I’m kinda glad,” Tatum said of the hazing restrictions. “I don’t want popcorn in my car. I would flip.”

Le’Veon Bell and the Power of the Pause

Today was a very good day for football, including a game that featured one of the most exciting and unusual running backs in football, Le’Veon Bell (who had 30 carries for 170 yards in today’s Steelersplayoff win over Kansas City).

What makes Bell so interesting to watch, especially for the non-football fan? His patience.

Football is a game measured in seconds. Even though the average game lasts over three hours, players are actually playing for only about 11-minutes. Time is of the essence in this brutal game, and so most running backs (typically the best athletes on the team) make their initial move immediately. You’ll occasionally see a hesitation move, but it’s the exception, not the rule.

Bell pauses practically every single time he carries the ball. It almost looks like he’s sauntering to start. He’s not; he’s a ridiculous athlete. But he lets the play develop before he makes his move, and he’s often thinking two or three steps ahead.

This is strategic action personified in the most extreme, violent conditions. One of the core muscles in my Collaboration Muscles & Mindsets program is the Pausing muscle. Simply doing a collaboration workout in the middle of the work week exercises the Pausing muscle. Additionally, every workout kicks off with a minute of silent breathing.

Moving without pausing to think and see is one of the most common strategic deficiencies I see in other knowledge workers, including many leaders. I’d love to show clips of Bell play with everyone I work with.

Lots of commentators, coaches, and players have commented on his style, although you don’t have to be an experienced football fan to notice this. This Washington Post piece on Bell’s patience is excellent (and also touches on his love of chess). This video features clips and interviews with his peers about his patience:

I particularly loved this next video, where Jerome “The Bus” Bettis, Bell’s Hall of Fame predecessor and one of my favorite players, talks patience and strategy with Bell. Not only is it fun to watch to great players talk about their craft, but in the previous video, Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly breaks down why Bell is so hard to stop. In this video, Bell talks specifically about the cat-and-mouse game he often plays with Kuechly.

Photo by Brook Ward. CC BY-NC 2.0.

Working Smarter and Focusing on Fundamentals: Lessons from Tom Brady

From yesterday’s profile of Tom Brady on ESPN.com:

“There’s nobody like this guy in the league,” [Rex] Ryan once said of [Peyton] Manning. “Nobody studies like him. I know Brady thinks he does. I think there’s probably a little more help with [Bill] Belichick with Brady than there is with Peyton Manning.”

Told another time by reporters that Brady attended a Broadway show instead of watching the Jets-Colts playoff game that would determine New England’s next opponent, Ryan quipped, “Peyton Manning would have been watching our game.”

What Ryan and others have never seemed to grasp, one of Brady’s former teammates explains, is that Brady has always been smart enough to accept that it’s impossible to know everything. That’s why he’s the best postseason quarterback of all time. (Brady holds the record for most playoff wins, yards and touchdowns.) That’s why he obsesses over the simple fundamentals of playing catch, drilling for hours and hours in the offseason with guys like Edelman and former teammate Wes Welker on stuff as basic as ball position and splits. A player can study film and look at 10,000 formations on an iPad for as many hours as the eyes and the brain will allow. But ultimately, the human mind is not a computer. Overthinking in tense moments, trying to decode a defense like it’s a sudoku puzzle, is the perfect recipe for hesitation and panic.

“You know, Brady probably doesn’t watch as much film as Manning, and that’s OK,” said Brady’s former teammate. “You know why? Because he’s got coaches that are watching just as much film as [Manning] is. What Brady gets is that he’s the only guy who understands exactly what’s going on down on the field. So when Josh McDaniels calls a certain play, Brady is thinking: ‘I know exactly why he called that play. I know exactly what my read is on this.’ Brady’s genius is that he understands delegation. He trusts the people around him.”

Super Bowl Collaboration Lessons: Data, Preparation, and Accountability

The New England Patriots won its fourth Super Bowl last night, beating the Seattle Seahawks 28-24 in a thrilling contest and a crazy finish. I normally root against all Boston sports teams, but I made an exception this year, because Tom Brady is of my generation, and I can’t be mad when an old guy wins.

(If you’re not interested in football, skip ahead to my takeaways.)

For those of you who didn’t see the game, the ending was exciting and… surprising. New England was up by four points with about two minutes left, when Seahawks quarterback, Russell Wilson, threw a long pass to unheralded receiver Jermaine Kearse. The Patriots undrafted, rookie cornerback, Malcolm Butler, made an unbelievable play on the ball that should have effectively ended the game.

Except that miraculously, the ball hit Kearse’s leg as he was falling on the ground, and Kearse somehow managed to catch the ball on his back. The Seahawks had a first down five yards away from the end zone, and, with the best power running back in the game, Marshawn Lynch, they seemed destined to steal this game from the Patriots. Sure enough, Lynch got the ball on the next play and rumbled his way to the one-yard line with a minute to spare.

To understand what happened next, you have to understand how clock management works in the NFL. The Seahawks had one minute and three chances to move the ball one yard and win the game. The clock would run down continuously unless one of two things happened: the Seahawks threw an incomplete pass or one of the teams called a timeout. (Technically, they could also stop the clock by running out of bounds, but that was unlikely scenario given their field position.) The Seahawks only had one timeout remaining, meaning that they could stop the clock with it once. The only other way it could stop the clock was to throw an incomplete pass.

At the same time, the Patriots had a very hard decision to make. If the Seahawks scored, then the Patriots would need enough time to score as well. With a minute left, they had a chance. Any less, and they were as good as done.

To summarize, the Seahawks top priority was to score. It’s second priority was to do so with as little time as possible left on the clock, so that the Patriots didn’t have a chance to answer. The Patriots either had to try to stop the Seahawks from scoring, or — if they believed that the odds of that happening were unlikely — they needed to let the Seahawks score as quickly as possible, so that they had a chance to answer.

That was the complicated version of the situation, at least. The joy of football is that it is both wildly complex and brutally simple. The simple version of the situation was this: One yard, three chances. Give ball to big, strong man known affectionately as “Beast mode.” Watch him rumble into end zone. Celebrate victory.

That was the version that most people — myself included — saw, so when the Seahawks decided to try to pass the ball, most everybody was shocked. The reason you don’t pass in that situation is that you risk throwing an interception. That’s exactly what happened. Malcolm Butler, the unlucky victim of Kearse’s lucky catch two plays before, anticipated the play, intercepted the ball, and preserved the Patriots victory.

The media — both regular and social — predictably erupted. How could they throw the ball on that play?!

(Okay, takeaways start here.)

I took three things away from watching the game and that play in particular.

First, I had assumed — like most of America — that Pete Carroll, Seattle’s head coach, had made a bungling error. But when he explained his reasoning afterward, there seemed to be at least an ounce of good sense behind his call.

With about 30 seconds remaining, in the worst case scenario, Carroll needed to stop the clock at least twice to give his team three chances to score. They only had one timeout. So, they would try a pass play first. If they scored, then they would very likely win the game, because the Patriots would not have enough time to score. If they threw an incomplete pass, the clock would stop, and the Seahawks would have two more chances to try to score, both times likely on the ground.

Still, it seemed like a net bad decision. It still seemed like handing the ball off the Lynch was a lower risk move with a higher probability of success in that situation.

It turns out that when you look at the actual numbers, it’s not clear that this is the case. (Hat tip to Bob Blakley for the pointer to the article.) In fact, the data suggests that Patriots head coach, Bill Belichik, made the more egregious error in not calling a timeout and stopping the clock. It may have even behooved him to let the Seahawks score, a strategy he employed in the Super Bowl four years earlier. Or, maybe by not calling timeout, Belichik was demonstrating a mastery of game theory.

The bottom line is that the actual data did not support most people’s intuitions. Both coaches — two of the best in the game — had clearly done their homework, regardless of whether or not their decisions were right or wrong.

Second, regardless of whether or not the decision was good or bad, I loved how multiple people on the Seahawks — Carroll, Wilson, and offensive coordinator, Darrell Bevell — insisted that they were solely responsible for the decision. There was no finger pointing, just a lot of leaders holding themselves accountable. Clearly, there is a very healthy team dynamic on the Seahawks.

Third, I loved Malcolm Butler’s post-game interview, not just for the raw emotion he displayed, but for what he actually said. He made an unbelievable play, which he attributed to his preparation. He recognized the formation from his film study, and he executed. All too often, we see remarkable plays like Butler’s, and we attribute it to incredible athleticism or talent, when in reality, practice and preparation are responsible.

What Does Great Collaboration Feel Like?

What does great collaboration feel like? Here’s the legendary basketball player Bill Russell’s description from his book, Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man:

Every so often a Celtics game would heat up so that it became more than a physical or even mental game, and would be magical. That feeling is difficult to describe, and I certainly never talked about it when I was playing. When it happened, I could feel my play rise to a new level. It came rarely, and would last anywhere from five minutes to a whole quarter, or more. Three or four plays were not enough to get it going. It would surround not only me and the other team, and even the referees. At that special level, all sorts of odd things happened: The game would be in the white heat of competition, and yet somehow I wouldn’t feel competitive, which is a miracle in itself. I’d be putting out the maximum effort, straining, coughing up parts of my lungs as we ran, and yet I never felt the pain. The game would move so quickly that every fake, cut, and pass would be surprising, and yet nothing could surprise me. It was almost as if we were playing in slow motion. During those spells, I could almost sense how the next play would develop and where the next shot would be taken. Even before the other team brought the ball inbounds, I could feel it so keenly that I’d want to shout to my teammates, ‘it’s coming there!’ — except that I knew everything would change if I did. My premonitions would be consistently correct, and I always felt then that I not only knew all the Celtics by heart, but also all the opposing players, and that they all knew me. There have been many times in my career when I felt moved or joyful, but these were the moments when I had chills pulsing up and down my spine.

On the five or ten occasions when the game ended at that special level, I literally did not care who had won. If we lost, I’d still be as free and high as a sky hawk.

Thanks to Deborah Meehan for the pointer!