Monday, February 23, 2009

Michael Lewis, Shane Battier, and Team Players

Michael Lewis had a terrific article last week in New York Times Magazine about Shane Battier, the Duke graduate who now plays basketball for the Houston Rockets. Lewis makes the point that Battier has never drawn raves from NBA scouts and coaches for his play, and he does not fill up the stat sheet in most games. However, his teams tend to perform remarkably well. He simply makes his teammates better in a variety of small, but very important ways. Of course, we look for this attribute in our workers in any organization, not just athletics. We want team players who help those around them perform at a higher level. Lewis goes on to write that, "There is a tension, peculiar to basketball, between the interests of the team and the interests of the individual. The game continually tempts the people who play it to do things that are not in the interest of the group." Battier consistently forgoes selfish acts in favor of the interests of the team, often in very hard-to-observe ways. Again, we would love to have such employees.

Lewis talks to Houston general manager, Daryl Morey, who once visited my MBA class to speak with my students. Morey is an incredibly insightful student of the game with an MBA from MIT. Morey describes how his analytic methods enabled him to see that Battier had this positive impact on team performance. The challenge, however, was to understand precisely how Battier had this type of impact. Statistics alone could not provide that answer. Only detailed observation could reveal how Battier, whose individual play seemed so ordinary, could elevate his team's performance so substantially.

Thus, Morey's work as General Manager of the Rockets highlights two critical challenges for any organization leader. How does one find the Shane Battiers of his or her team or firm? Perhaps more importantly, how does one come to understand precisely what actions and behaviors help certain individuals elevate the performance of those around them?