Collaborative Literacy

Take a moment, and think about the best collaborative experience you’ve ever had. It could be something that happened at work or a personal experience — organizing a family gathering, doing a shared activity with friends.

What would your life be like if all of your collaborative experiences were as good as that one?

Imagine a world in which everybody’s collaborative experiences were just one percent better, however you’d like to define that. What would that world look like?

My driving passion for the past 10 years has been to create that world. My contention has been that our overall collaborative literacy is depressingly low, and if we could boost that literacy even a little bit, it would result in drastic improvements in the world around us.

By “collaborative literacy,” I mean our fundamental abilities to collaborate with others. But what exactly does that mean? And how can we boost it?

As is often the case, I think sports offers a wonderful analogy. In honor of today’s NCAA Finals game, I’d like to draw some lessons on collaborative literacy from basketball. (If you’re not a sports fan, please bear with me. I’ll try to keep the jargon to a minimum, and I hope the analogy will still be useful.)

Basketball is one of those sports that’s hard to play casually unless you have some basic skills: dribbling and shooting. Both are hard to acquire, and dribbling is harder to learn than shooting. I spent hours as a kid practicing my dribbling, and I’m still below average at it. Lots of people can’t dribble without looking at the ball, including some pros.

When you play pick-up basketball, you meet people of all skill levels, but you rarely meet anyone who doesn’t have those baseline skills. And if they have those skills, that means they’ve put in some amount of time playing the game.

However, those are individual skills — necessary, but not sufficient. You also need to understand how to play the game at a team level. In other words, you need to have some baseline level of collaborative literacy. Casual followers of the game might think that collaborative literacy consists simply of passing the ball, but there’s a whole lot more. On offense, collaborative literacy consists of:

  • Passing
  • Moving without the ball
  • Setting screens (i.e. creating a wall with your body so that your teammate can get away from his or her defender)
  • Boxing out (i.e. again, using your body as a wall so that the opposing player can’t get a rebound)

On defense, collaborative literacy consists of:

  • Calling out screens (i.e. letting your teammate know that the opposing player is setting a screen, so that your teammate can move around it)
  • Double-teaming (i.e. helping a teammate defend an opposing player)
  • Rotating (i.e. covering for your teammate when an opposing player gets by him or her)

None of these skills are easily apparent, in the same way that the individual skills of shooting and dribbling are. However, they are all physically easier to acquire than the individual skills. Anyone can pick up a ball for the first time and pass the ball reasonably well. The same can’t be said for dribbling or shooting. Calling out screens requires the ability to yell. Most people are naturally very good at that. All the other group skills simply require moving your body, running to a spot. You don’t have to teach your body anything new.

What makes these skills hard is knowing what to do in the right moment. You can discuss the mechanics of these, and you can learn a lot by watching others, but in order to embody these skills, you have to practice them. And unlike the individual skills, you can’t  practice these collaborative skills by yourself.

To some extent, you can learn these skills by osmosis, but what I’ve discovered from years of playing pick-up is that people rarely do. You need to be conscious of these skills in order to practice them. I’ve played pick-up basketball with people who have played their whole lives and yet who never move without the ball or box out.

This holds true with collaborative literacy in all contexts. How many people do you know at work who have a basic literacy around giving and receiving effective feedback, for example? How long have they been doing business?

In order to learn how to collaborate more effectively, we need to be conscious of what collaborative literacy entails. But, even more critically, we need to have opportunities to practice those. I actually think there’s a ton of good information on the basic skills of collaborative literacy, but there are very few supporting structures for practicing these intentionally. Leadership development programs, for example, focus almost entirely on individual skill development, but they only marginally cover collaborative skill development, and they generally offer very few opportunities to actually practice them.

If we’re to achieve this vision of a world where all of our collaborative experiences are merely one percent better, we need to create more structures for developing collaborative literacy.

Photo by Wade Menard. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. As a relevant aside, I searched through hundreds of CC-licensed Flickr pictures seeking something that embodied team play. I didn’t find any. All of the pictures highlighted an individual skill.

The Mainstreaming of Analytics

John Hollinger, a long-time ESPN.com columnist and inventor of the Player Efficiency Rating (PER) for evaluating basketball players, is joining the Memphis Grizzlies front office as its Vice President of Basketball Operations.

This is wacky on a number of levels. First, it represents the ongoing rise of the numbers geek in sports, a movement pioneered by Bill James almost 40 years ago, given an identity a decade ago in Michael Lewis’s book, Moneyball, and gaining official acceptance in the NBA five years ago, when the Houston Rockets named Daryl Morey its General Manager. Want to run a professional sports team? These days, an MIT degree seems to give you a better chance than spending years in the business.

Second, Hollinger spent over a decade sharing his thinking and his tools for all to see. Now, all his competition needs to do to understand his thinking is to Google him. Tom Ziller writes:

The major difference between Hollinger and, say, Morey is that we all know Hollinger’s theories. We know his positions, and we’ve learned from his work…. Will his canon hurt his ability to make moves? We can lay out exactly which players he likes based on his public formulas and his writings. Other GMs will know which Memphis players he’ll sell low on. You can anticipate his draft choices if you’re picking behind him. If you’ve got a high-production, low-minutes undersized power forward, you know you can goose the price on him because history indicates that Hollinger values him quite seriously.

This is all a gross simplification: Hollinger’s oeuvre is filled with nuance. He doesn’t rank players solely by PER, and in fact he probably has some adjustments to his myriad metrics up his sleeve. He’s not going to be nearly as predictable as a decision-maker as anyone would be as a writer. The stakes are different, the realities of action are different. But no decision-maker in the NBA has had this much of their brain exposed to the world. Morey isn’t shy, but that big Michael Lewis spread on Shane Battier was as far as we ever got into the GM’s gears. Zarren is notoriously careful about what he says. He might be the only GM or assistant GM in the league more secretive than Petrie.

It’s interesting to consider the implications on the Big Data movement in business (on which Moneyball had a much greater influence than most would probably admit). Business is not a zero sum game like professional sports, so there’s more room for nuance and many positive examples of openness and transparency. Still, for all those who believe that openness and competition do not have to be at odds with each other, this will be fascinating to watch.

Ziller also makes a wonderful point about the importance of communicating meaning from analysis:

In the end, what Hollinger’s hire means is that the ability to do the hard analysis is important, but so is translating that to a language the people on the court can understand. That’s always been a wonderful Hollinger strength: making quant analysis accessible without dumbing it down. Even someone as brilliant as Morey, who has a team of quants, can’t always achieve that.

I’m reminded of a tale from Rick Adelman’s days in Houston. Morey’s team would deliver lengthy scouting reports to the team and coaching staff well before a game. It’d have player tendencies, shooting charts, instructions on match-up advantages — everything you could ask for to prep for a game. And out of all of the coaches and all of the players only two — Shane Battier and Chuck Hayes — would devour the reports. The rest (Adelman included) would leaf through, pretend to care and go play ball. That story might be an exaggeration on the part of the person who told it, but even if that’s the case, it shows how important accessibility is. You can build the world’s greatest performance model. And if you can’t explain what it means to the people using it, it’s worthless.

Technique, Practice, and Craft

Last week, Sports Illustrated published an article about Georgetown’s basketball program and its coach, John Thompson III. Georgetown has a long tradition of producing skilled big men, starting with Thompson’s father in the 1970s and 1980s. And while Thompson has continued that tradition, he’s gained a reputation for something different:

Much has been made about the Princeton-style offense that Georgetown runs under Thompson, about how difficult it is to defend and prepare for. But what is unique about Georgetown’s system has little to do with anything that is written in a playbook. Everything the Hoyas do offensively is based on reading the defense and reacting to those reads. Most systems involve a player being told something along the lines of: cut here, run off of that screen there, set a pick for him and roll to the basket, lather, rinse, repeat.

Georgetown’s theory is different.

Thompson doesn’t tell his team what to do on any given play. He doesn’t give them specific instructions, rather he teaches them, from the day they set foot on campus, how to make that decision for themselves based off of what they see on the floor in front of them. In his words, “the ability to just be a basketball player is something that we stress. Don’t be a position.”

And that is the most difficult point to get across.

“A lot of freshmen want to be told specifically what to do,” he said. “The difficult part becomes understanding that they have to make the read, because they’re so used to being told where to run in the play next.

“It’s new for most players to have to make reads and have to make decisions based on how they’re being played and how the defense is set. But once you grasp that way of thinking, I think it is very simple.”

I’ve loved basketball my whole life, but I’ve never played it competitively. So I’m intrigued by what this actually means in practice. I totally agree with it in theory. However, before you can learn how to make your own decisions, sometimes you have to learn things by rote.

I recently heard chef extraordinaire Jacques Pepin on the radio talking about cooking, and he gave a wonderful definition of technique:

For me, technique is very important. Technique is really a repetition, repetition, endless repetition of a certain movement, whether you use a knife or whatever, so it becomes so engrained, so part of yourself that you can afford to forget it, because it’s there forever.

You learn a certain movement, a certain reaction over and over and over again until, as Pepin said, “you can afford to forget it, because it’s there forever.” That, to me, is the essence of craft, whether it’s sports, cooking, or my own craft of collaboration. Learning certain things by rote ultimately gives you the freedom to express yourself.

After a recent playoff game, Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers had this to say about his point guard, Rajon Rondo:

“He’s got to be in attack,” Rivers said. “I thought the second quarter he was attacking and attacking. I thought he was reading a lot instead of playing on instincts. I think sometimes his IQ hurts him at times. He’s trying to read the defense, but you can’t read and play with speed at the same time.

“We go through it a lot — at least Rondo and I — about, ‘Rondo, just trust your instincts. Your speed has to be part of it. Your instincts will take over. You’ll make the right decision.'”

Doing any craft well is all about trusting your instincts. You get those instincts by doing your thinking in practice rather than in the moment.