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Can a collaborative front office approach be successful?

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The Sixers are emphasizing collaboration in front office decisions. Just as they should.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers-Media Day Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

I was interested to observe the strong and negative reaction to the Elton Brand promotion in the comments here at LB. I mean, opinions were mixed, but my general sense was that most people, while hoping for the best, saw the decision as a major disappointment. I don’t know Elton Brand and I don’t have anything much to go on in judging whether or not he’ll be a good GM. But a lot of the criticism of the deal is based on a set of beliefs about the world that seem dubious to me, and I wanted to explore them. Very little of the criticism I’ve read is really about Elton Brand. Indeed the criticism started months ago. What appears to upset many observers is the idea that the team will be run via collaboration and consensus, rather than by a strong leader. As with all things, it’s a little more complicated than one sentence can describe, so let’s drill down. I see critics of the Brand-as-GM-in-a-consensus-arrangement as falling into three categories.

Group 1: The Inconceivables

This group’s view is that it’s simply not plausible that the organization will be run by a group working collaboratively. Any organization, they seem to feel, whether it be a company, a military unit, a government, or an orchestra, needs a leader, a decision-maker, a person with whom the buck stops. In this view, there simply is no other way, and organizations that say they’ll be run differently are kidding themselves — sooner or later, probably sooner, a leader will emerge.

In the Inconceivable view, either Brand will be that strong leader, which is problematic because he is inexperienced and may lack crucial expertise (e.g. on cap management). Or Brett brown will be in charge, which is bad because the coach-GM has tended to fail in the insanely complex world of third-millenium pro sports. Or Cohen or Eversley will be in charge, which is bad because they are Colangelo disciples and Colangelo, it is felt, did a lousy job. Or it will be Josh Harris or another member of the ownership group — perhaps, based on Keith Pompey’s recent reporting, David Heller — which is bad because they are not “basketball people.”

Group 2: The Terribles

The “Terrible” view is that the team can and likely will be run collaboratively, but that this is a terrible idea, sure to lead to bad outcomes. In this view it’s not that organizations always have strong leaders, it’s that organizations that don’t have strong leaders fail miserably. So the Terribles think that when Brand/Brown/Cohen/Eversley/Rucker/owners put their heads together to develop a strategy, major problems will ensue. Perhaps the team will swing wildly from one approach to another as the power of one individual waxes or wanes. Or the group will be paralyzed by indecision and never pull a trigger. Or constant infighting will lead to bad vibes around the team, causing player unhappiness. Etc.

Group 3: No Jocks

The No-Jocks group thinks that a former player like Brand is the wrong choice for running a team. There are things about the NBA that former players know better than anyone, but, these folks argue, those things are not the most essential knowledge for modern GMs. These folks would rather see someone with a different background — an ex coach, a contract-negotiation or salary-cap or business expert, a statistical analyst, or something, but not an ex-player.

Under normal circumstances I would find all these critiques understandable. After all, much of what we learn — about military history, government, sports, science, business — revolves around identifying a Great Man and arguing that whatever good thing occurred — an invention, a successful company, victory in war, a championship — was the sole or almost-sole result of the efforts of this extraordinary individual. Sometimes it’s even true!

But for a number of reasons, it did surprise me that folks were so eager to go down this road at this particular moment. To wit:

The Sixers’ arch-rival, who beat us last Spring and who seem ready for a big year again this time around, are run by what appears to seemingly everyone to be a collaboration. And not just any collaboration — a collaboration where the GM is an ex-player! Who was hired as top executive having had no prior executive experience (he was previously a player and coach). As best I can tell, few people, or at least few Sixer fans, think Danny Ainge is a master of capology. That’s why so many fans were so hopeful that the Sixers would hire Mike Zarren as GM; because they think that Zaren provides a lot of the brains of the operation. Whether this is or isn’t fair to Danny I cannot say; a good rule of life seems to be “RESIST THE TEMPTATION TO UNDERESTIMATE DANNY AINGE!!” Did you know that he won the Wooden Award as national college player of the year, but he still fell to the second round, where the C’s nabbed him? Have you ever seen the list of players who were first-team high school All-Americans in all three major sports; baseball, basketball, and football? Here’s the list:

Daniel Ray Ainge.

That is all.

So, again, who knows, maybe it’s all Danny. But the Zaren love on this board tells me that fans here think — as I myself do — that the Celtics are run via a collaborative decision-making process involving analytics guys, contract/cap gurus, genius coach Brad Stevens, ownership, and Danny. Now, just because Danny Ainge and his team are successfully collaborating doesn’t mean the Sixer crew can do the same. But why people would think such a thing is impossible, or even implausible, is a mystery to me.

Is it just Boston? Well, let’s check in on our #2 historical rival, the Los Angeles Lakers. Isn’t that team being run by a collaboration between ex-player Magic Johnson and others, especially ex-agent and ex-college-player Rob Pelinka? And while I don’t agree with all the moves they’ve made (just as I didn’t love all Danny’s moves), I don’t think any reasonable person can deny that they are very well-positioned to compete, if not now then a year from now. It certainly doesn’t appear that the Lakers are, at this moment, being poorly run.

And then the team everyone is chasing, the Golden State Warriors; weren’t they built by a group that included, at minimum, President of Basketball Operations (and former NCAA champion as a player for UCLA) Bob Myers, coach Steve Kerr, a former player who had previously worked as a GM, and special advisor and minority owner (and former superstar player) Jerry West? Am I supposed to believe that in 2012, at age 37, Myers listened patiently to the far more experienced Kerr and West and then told them to all go take naps while he ignored them and made the real decisions? I wasn’t there, but color me skeptical; my gut says it was a collaboration!

If we look at other super-successful NBA executives of recent years, it doesn’t seem as though there’s a paucity of ex-players. Jerry West I mentioned, Pat Riley, Joe Dumars, just off the top of my head. Larry Bird didn’t win the big one as a GM but I think did a credible job overall. None of which is to deny that there have been failures — ex-player Phil Jackson fared poorly as Knicks GM, as did Isiah Thomas. Hmmm, maybe it’s more a Knicks thing than an ex-player thing....

But this post isn’t really about the ex-player issue, it’s about the question of whether it’s common for organizations to be successfully run on a “consensus” basis, rather than by a powerful person behind a big desk. And I’m here to tell you that it is. I can’t speak to what goes on at gigantic organizations like GE or Apple or the United States Army, maybe in those places the buck really does stop with the top individual. But I have some experience in organizations that are more comparable to an NBA team. Organizations that, like the Sixers, have many millions in annual revenue, that have dozens or hundreds of employees, that have a dozen or two key staffers who have lots of money and prestige. I’m thinking here of financial services and professional services firms in areas like investment management (e.g. venture capital or private equity) and management consulting, plus entrepreneurial startups (in my non-basketball life I teach a class for students who are starting entrepreneurial businesses). These businesses are characterized by the aphorism that most of the company’s value walks out the door at the end of the workday; i.e. the value is in the personnel. Just as with an NBA team.

Of course such firms are not devoid of hierarchy — some people have ownership stakes and some don’t, and among the owners some have more and some less. Different people have different responsibilities, different rights, different titles. And in the end there is a process by which final decisions are made. In some firms that process involves a central person — a CEO or Managing Partner or whatever — making whatever decision they think is best. But very frequently the model is far more collaborative. Sometimes there is a vote of the equity holders, or of an executive committee. Sometimes everybody talks until consensus is reached. Sometimes everybody talks until consensus is reached unless that takes too long, at which point the designated leader makes a call, or there’s a vote, or whatever.

Think of, for example, a young technology company with an exciting product. Such a company will have a CEO, as well as, typically, chiefs of operations, technology, finance, and marketing, plus a general counsel. On top of that there will be key investors; often some early investors in the firm, plus venture capitalists whose firms have large stakes in the business and who monitor the company on behalf of their investors. Now suppose that company is facing a decision whose importance is comparable to a Jimmy Butler trade for the Sixers. Say, whether to focus on the US market or try to start selling in Europe, or whether to acquire a key supplier. No doubt in some small companies everyone says their piece and then they all go home and then the CEO decides what to do. That’s a valid mechanism. But I can assure you that in many, many firms it doesn’t work that way. Such a decision will be made by building consensus among all the key players I mentioned above, and perhaps many others. And I truly believe the second method for running things is every bit as legitimate, has led to every bit as much success, as the first. A ship can only have one captain, but a company is not a ship, a team is not a ship.

Since this is a Philly team we’re talking about, I can’t resist mentioning the final reason I found folks strong resistance to collaboration so puzzling: isn’t collaboration and consensus a big part of the Eagles’ Super Bowl story? I don’t just mean that Howie Roseman obviously worked closely with Joe Douglas, Doug Pederson, Jeff Lurie and others, though that is of course true. I mean instead at the coaching level. Perhaps the single place in American culture where the cult of the supreme leader is most revered is among NFL coaches. In my lifetime we have had two archetypes of the Hall of Fame coach:

  1. Be the smartest guy in the world. The Bill Walsh approach.
  2. Be the toughest guy in the world. The Mike Ditka approach.

The two greatest coaches in NFL history are, I think most would say, Bill Belichick and Vince Lombardi, each of whom was viewed as both the smartest and the toughest of their day. Arguably the same could be said of Bill Parcells; perhaps he was the second-toughest and the second-smartest, a good combination!

And what about Doug Pederson? Did he bring us the title we’ve wanted so long by being the smartest guy in the world? I think Doug himself does not think, deep in his heart, that he’s the smartest of the smart. Is he the toughest? It seems obvious to me that many coaches are tougher.

So how did he win? Well, a little luck never hurt! But fundamentally Doug Pederson showed the NFL a new way to be great: by being the most flexible, most open-minded person around. I think it was pretty obvious Doug’s offense was really a collaboration, with Reich, Flip, Duce, Groh, etc. He wasn’t afraid to take good ideas from Chip Kelly, from college and high school coaches, you name it, and he wasn’t afraid to admit he’d taken ideas from those sources. And on the biggest play in Eagle history, well, God bless him, he let a backup quarterback make the call, adding only a wonderfully laconic Yeah, “let’s do it.”

Does Doug’s success, really the whole organization’s success, prove that open-minded and collaborative and flexible trumps the lone genius? Of course not! There are lots of ways to be successful; what Doug did was to add one to the list, or, for folks like me who already believed in collaborative approaches, add confirming evidence that a collaborative approach indeed belongs on the list.

Perhaps I’ll be disappointed by the Sixers going forward, but if so I don’t think it will be because the idea of running a team by consensus is flawed; it’ll just be because this particular group didn’t make the right calls or catch the right breaks. I believe in the collaborative approach, and I have high hopes for the Sixers’ future.