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  • Tom Birchard

Lessons for High Performing Teams from Watching Gonzaga Basketball

From conversations I’ve had, I know I’m not alone in enjoying this year’s NCAA basketball tournament and specifically, in watching the Gonzaga Bulldogs play. Gonzaga is 30-0 this year and trying to become the first undefeated national champion in 45 years. They would have to win 2 more games to accomplish that feat, and I’ll be the first to admit they very well could lose…that’s what you get with a single-game elimination tournament and why they call it March “Madness”. Nonetheless, what they’ve accomplished so far is remarkable.


Even more than their record and statistics, watching them play the game of basketball is a joy. While viewing a few of their games this tournament, I couldn’t help but observe some behaviors and characteristics that have direct parallel to high-performing business team. Below are a few that struck me and I think business leaders would be wise to incorporate:


· Calm and Consistent Leadership – Given the success Gonzaga has had in recent history, I was surprised by the relatively few articles about coach Mark Few (pun intended). What I was able to find talked about a well-balanced and low-ego type of leader. Few goes for a run before games and enjoys fishing and other relaxing activities, ideally where there is no cell service. COVID-19 was a stark reminder of the importance of level-headed and calm leadership amidst the storm, and coach Mark Few seems to exemplify this. He’s also been the Gonzaga head coach since 1999. In a situation like college athletics where there’s no way around having a constantly revolving door of players, this consistency of leadership is key. Many companies these days promote frequent job changes and movement, especially among high performers. Balancing this with stable and consistent performers is especially important if you want to sustain high performance over an extended period of time.


· Trust and Selflessness – When you watch Gonzaga play what really stands out is their passing and ball movement. It’s almost as if they can read each other’s minds and know where their teammates are going to be well before the defense. This results in lots of easy baskets and layups. They are also the highest scoring team in college basketball and don’t have a single player who averages 20 points per game. This all points to a high level of trust and selflessness. Translating this to business, I’m sure we’ve all been on a team with a low level of trust or where one individual tries to claim all the glory and cares more about themselves than the team. This is toxic and makes everything so much more difficult, in basketball they call it being a “ball hog.” Taking concrete steps to build trust with any team is probably the first and most important thing to do and everything that follows flows from that firm foundation.

· Constant Motion – While watching Gonzaga play against USC earlier this week, one of the announcers commented that “they are always in motion.” This is a glaring contrast to many teams where it seems everyone stands around and watches one player dribble and try to get an open look. I think this is important in business as well. If you keep your eyes open there’s always work to be done. It could be organizing your electronic files, calling an employee or customer just because to check-in, or even sweeping the shop floor. The next time you find yourself with some work downtime, think of Gonzaga and the constant movement and effort.


· Complementary Skills and Diversity – Gonzaga’s starting lineup consists of 1 freshman, 1 sophomore, 2 juniors, and 1 senior. Their heights range from 6’4 to 6’10. They have starters that grew up in the US, Canada, and even France. In addition to these differences, they have complementary skillsets in the areas of defense, rebounding, passing, three-point shooting, and others. There are many dimensions of diversity, and having a work team with varying background and experiences, as well as complementary skillsets will allow for whole to be greater than the sum of the parts. Without that a team can suffer from group think and will likely have major blind spots that over time will impede performance.

· Balance of Game Plan and Improvisation – When you watch Gonzaga play, it’s clear they have a game plan and some predefined plays that are highly effective. However when their main option is cutoff, or things break down as they inevitably do, they are able to improvise and think on the fly to make things happen. At my company the equivalent of plays in basketball is our standard work. We try to follow this standard work, which is essentially the “best known way” to do whatever task is being done. We even have leader standard work which attempts to define the behavior and recurring activities we’ll perform as individuals in our role. Just like in basketball though, things break down and it’s necessary to improvise, and occasionally even to make a permanent change to the standard work. This should be expected and embraced, but doesn’t negate the need to have the standard work. If anything the inevitable improvisation makes it even more important to have a standard, as it’s something to come back to in order to provide stability rather than turning into all-out chaos.


· Talent and Recruiting – While all of the behaviors above are important, they’ll only get you to a certain level of performance. Beyond that you need top-notch talent. Gonzaga’s most recent example of that is Jalen Suggs out of my home state of Minnesota. Suggs was ESPN’s #5 rated recruit in the country, the highest ever Gonzaga has ever landed. The best of the best more often wind up at better known programs like Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina, Kansas and others. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that while Mark Few has had success in his 20+ years at Gonzaga, it’s taken him this long to have a #1 rated and undefeated team. There’s no substitute for talent which can only be achieved through active recruiting. The same holds true in business. You can optimize the performance of any individual through training and a robust development plan (the equivalent of practice in basketball). That being said it’s sometimes necessary to upgrade by bringing in a highly talented individual from outside the current team, just like Gonzaga did with Jalen Suggs.

My bracket is busted, but I’ll still be watching and cheering for Gonzaga because of the way they play the game of basketball. For any other sports fans out there, what are some things you see the elite teams doing that could be translated to other areas of life?


Here are some recommendations from the last 2 weeks:


· Article - The Next Great Disruption Is Hybrid Work - Are We Ready? – This is the best article I’ve read, while at times sobering, in outlining some of the downsides of our current work environment while also providing some suggestions on what we can do about it. If you’re currently working in a hybrid or fully virtual environment, I highly recommend reading and pondering this article


· Podcast Episode - Steve Levitt with Dr. Peter Attia on The Drive – Steve Levitt is the co-author of the book Freakonomics which came out around 15 years ago. This interview is highly entertaining and jam-packed full of insights. A couple that resonated with me were differentiating between facts and implications we’re trying to draw from those facts. He also talked about confusing objectives, strategy, and tactics, something I see happen often and will be a subject of a future blog post. I also found his points on mental health in schools to be thought-provoking


· Movie - Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal – I was aware of this scandal at a very high level but this Netflix documentary does a solid job of introducing some of the key people involved and outlining some of the details of how this scheme was executed. Makes you wonder where else this might be happening where those involved just haven’t been caught yet


· QuoteSociety is becoming accustomed to delaying gratification less and less, which means the payoff of delaying gratification grows more and more. by James Clear


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