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

Crib Notes on Golden State Warrior’s Collaborative Culture

Even if the Golden State Warriors lose to the Oklahoma City Thunder tonight, they have clearly established an extraordinary culture of performance and collaboration. Kevin Arnovitz outlined some elements of this culture in his excellent piece, “Fun and games: Warriors winning culture faces biggest test.” In particular:

An inclusive culture that values original (sometimes contrarian) thinking:

People up and down the Warriors’ org chart tout collaboration as the defining quality of the team’s culture. As with the Spurs, one is judged not on agreeability but on the ability to present original thinking — even contrarianism — agreeably.

Deliberative decisions and lots of communication. I particularly liked this story about doing their due diligence on Shaun Livingston:

“Decisions are made collaboratively,” Kerr said. “There’s a ton of discussion that goes into what we’re going to do. Any decision is discussed at length. It’s healthy, and we get a lot of different points of view.”

“Our communication happens on a daily, sometimes an hourly, basis,” Myers said. “It’s rare that anyone ever goes off in a silo, even me, and comes into the office one day and says, ‘This is what we’re doing.’ We’re having conversations organically, and they have a rhythm to them. We’re all formulating thoughts in a daily flow. We call each other to chat the way you’d call a buddy to check in.”

Joy and work-life balance as values:

Joy is constantly cited as a guiding principle within the organization…. The coaching staff under Kerr has adopted a mantra: “Either get s— done or go have fun.” Work is honored, and it’s vital to the development of both the team and the individual players…. But work-life balance is sacrosanct. Preserving that joy is not just a byproduct; it is an objective unto itself. Nobody in Oakland is setting up a cot in the video room, and nobody would think better of you if you did.

Diverse, sometimes unconventional thinkers and interests with a learning mindset. The Warriors have a 10% rule to encourage personal pursuits.

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!

LeBron James, Heroic Leadership, and the Danger of Narratives

For those of you who don’t follow basketball, the Miami Heat beat the San Antonio Spurs last night for this year’s NBA championship. It was a classic series featuring seven future Hall of Famers and going the full seven games.

What made this series particularly fascinating (besides the unbelievable level of play throughout) was that it featured the best player on the planet, LeBron James.

James is a freak of nature. He’s built like a power forward, he moves with the speed and agility of a wing, he sees the floor like a point guard, and he defends all five positions. In human-speak, he is a transcendent basketball Swiss Army knife, not just versatile, but superiorly so.

He also happens to be polarizing for a variety of reasons. He was anointed the future king of basketball while still in junior high school. He decided to leave his hometown team for his current one (an entirely justified decision) in a less than graceful manner, which created a lot of animosity. (Beyond that one minor transgression, which has been completely overblown in a way that all things sports are, James has been a model citizen.) He is the classic Goliath, and we love rooting against Goliath.

Because of this, James is intensely scrutinized and unfairly judged. Now that he’s won back-to-back championships, that scrutiny is likely to fade. But what I find fascinating is why we so easily and incorrectly judged him in the first place.

This series was fraught with those moments. It largely centered around James’s performance (he would go from hero to goat back to hero in a single quarter of play), but no player or coach was spared. And in the end, all of it was wrong.

Zach Lowe wrote in Grantland:

We remember players for their work in big moments, and that is never going to change. But when we overvalue those big moments at the expense of everything else, we do both those players and the game itself something of a disservice. We ignore the role of randomness and luck, as Henry Abbott beautifully reminded us this week. We ignore defense on a possession-by-possession basis, mostly because defense is hard to see and understand.

And we pick and choose which big moments are really big in strange ways that don’t make a lot of sense. Why is Leonard’s missed free throw more important, and more memorable, than the fact that no other Spur made a field goal in overtime? Why is Parker’s missed free throw in overtime less important than Leonard’s miss and Ginobili’s miss in regulation? Why do we eviscerate Ginobili for his eight turnovers while passing over the fact that Miami turned the ball over on three consecutive possessions in the last 1:10 of regulation in an elimination NBA Finals game — including two turnovers by LeBron? The Bobcats might have done better on those three possessions than LeBron and the Miami Heat managed.

The result — the Heat won, the Spurs lost — too often informs our analysis of the process.

These aren’t just wise words about sports, they’re wise words about almost everything we do. The reason stories are so valuable is that we are particularly attuned to them, and we are more likely to learn and integrate knowledge in that form. The problem with stories is that we are so attuned to them, we confuse narratives for truth. It is so easy to assign credit and blame in simplistic and incorrect ways, and to frame it as “rigorous analysis.” Daniel Kahneman has written extensively about our proclivity for finding causality where causality does not exist.

The other thing I found fascinating about this series was how it embodied our collective mindset about leadership. James has consistently been criticized throughout his career for being too unselfish “in the clutch.” In basketball, there is a mythos that it’s the best player’s job to “take over the game” in the fourth quarter, that the laws of team basketball are suddenly rendered irrelevant with the game on the line. We reward players who buy into this mythos, the classic example being Kobe Bryant. And so the common wisdom is, when the game is on the line, there’s no player you’d rather have on your team than Kobe.

But when you look at the data, it turns out that the classic wisdom is wrong. In crunch time, Kobe makes it easier for the opposing team’s defense, because they know with almost utter certainty that he’s going to shoot the ball. And the numbers confirm that this is a poor strategy, as Kobe consistently shoots worse in the last few minutes of a game than he does on average.

For years, James was eviscerated for his crunch time unselfishness, even though he single-handedly made mediocre teams great with his superior team-oriented play. We loved him for his unselfishness, unless it was the final minutes of the fourth quarter, at which point we expected him to get selfish again.

It’s totally irrational, but it’s pervasive not just in sports, but in business and in life. Our classic notion of leadership is of the heroic kind, and even though that’s beginning to change in leadership circles, old mindsets are hard to break.

Photo by Keith Allison. CC BY-SA 2.0.

May Progress Report on Balance and Impact

“I think I’m probably going to end up like a Tex Winter at some point. Maybe like a Pete Newell. Pete was on the sidelines for a number of teams for maybe the last 15-20 years of his life where he just encouraged people how to play. He sat with Lenny Wilkens in Cleveland for a number of years. He was a helpful consultant. That might be what I’m left to do — be a mentor of some sort.”

Phil Jackson, 67-year old basketball
coaching legend on his basketball future

The end of May has arrived, month five of my self-imposed and hopefully temporary retirement. As I noted a few weeks ago, I have some clarity on some professional goals and even some ideas about how to achieve them. As expected, this whole process has been both exciting and scary. It’s also sometimes depressing. When you put your heart and soul and sweat and tears into something for ten years, it becomes a huge part of who you are. Unraveling that feels like therapy, in both good and bad ways.

Earlier today, I read the above quote from Phil Jackson, and I found it a huge downer. That guy won 11 rings. I know he’s 67 with bad hips and a bad back and that he doesn’t want to do the coaching grind anymore, but there are undoubtedly better ways for him to be contributing to the game right now. What’s worse is that I kind of see myself in his words right now, even though I’m 30 years younger and nowhere near as accomplished.

I still get consulting inquiries, all of which I’ve turned down so far. It’s nice to know that people still respect you. It’s even nicer that Groupaya is still around and that Rebecca Petzel is still working as a consultant, as I can point people to either of them and feel good about the referral.

But I find a lot of that hard as well. It’s hard to turn down great projects, especially when your bank account is going in the wrong direction. Chatting with people about this stuff gets the intellectual juices flowing. Then the ego kicks in, as I imagine what I’d do if I took on those projects.

When I inevitably refer the work to my peers, I’m sometimes deflated by what I imagine will not happen because I’m not taking on the work. A lot of that is pure ego, silly and wrong. Some of it is not. Either way, it can be hard to let go.

Sometimes, I see work happening in less-than-skillful ways, and I get angry and feel myself wanting to fall back into comfortable roles and patterns. “Hire me as a consultant, and I’ll show you how it’s done!” I think to myself. Maybe I’m right. However, if I’m honest with myself about what it means to make a true impact while maintaining my health and sanity, I remember why I’m trying to break out of that very mindset.

Earlier this month, I attended the wonderful Creating Space conference in Baltimore, where Esther Nieves shared her motto: “Slow the pace, stay in the race.” I try to remind myself of this constantly, and when I’m actually practicing it, I can see it working. I’m thinking about things in a methodical way, and I’m liking how that process is going and how balanced my life is feeling while I’m doing that. I’m talking to a lot of people, listening deeply, trying to challenge my own assumptions about what needs to happen in the world. I’m doing experiments systematically, and I’m learning a lot that way.

Still, it’s hard. It does not come naturally for me to go slow, even when I’m actually and literally running. I occasionally go on long runs with my sister, who is constantly encouraging me to slow down so that I can run longer. I just can’t do it. I get bored. I’ll end up stopping after five miles, completely gassed, and she’ll keep running another three or four miles.

When I’m not using all of my skills, I feel underutilized and unhappy. I just have to keep reminding myself that I’m going slowly right now so that I can figure out ways to apply all of my skills in a more strategic, impactful, and joyful way.

Which brings me back to Phil Jackson and the world of sports. Earlier this year, as I went through a process of personal visioning, I put together a list of role models. One of those people was Jon Gruden, the youngest coach ever to win a Super Bowl at 41. He’s been out of coaching for the past four years, to the constant surprise of many pundits, given that he’s still young and in-demand and that he’s a self-proclaimed football junkie who has never had (nor wanted) a life outside of football. What I love about Gruden is that he’s found outside-the-box and probably even more impactful ways to stay close to the game.

I know what I’m passionate about, and I know what kind of life I want to live. I’m in that outside-the-box mode right now, which is occasionally a struggle, but which has been great overall. I think good things are going to come out of this whole process, although I am impatient to figure out what those things will be. I’ll just have to keep reminding myself: Slow the pace, stay in the race….