The NBA Goes Agile!

“At the end of the day, it’s all about winning”
– LeBron James

Now that I’ve got your attention, I’d like to share some thoughts that I believe support the claim in the title of this post. At least in the spirit of what an Agile way of working could mean.

The Sportsnet.ca’s Donnovan Bennett recently interviewed ESPN sports writer Ramona Shelburne on Sportsnet’s “Tim and Sid” show. The interview focused on the recent National Basketball Association’s (NBA) stunning blockbuster move of the Toronto Raptor’s Kawhi Leonard and the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Paul George to the Los Angeles Clippers. Being a Toronto native, I was sad to see Kawhi leave us. It was such a storybook season culminating in Toronto’s first NBA title. But what really caught my attention was their reference to how free agency in the NBA has enabled “The Player Empowerment Era“. They referred to it as “… the player to player plotting that has turned the league upside down.

Kawhi was the puppet master who covertly orchestrated this move. Stealthily recruiting Paul George to come play with him. Team management and the media were left in the dark. On the outside looking in. Guessing and hoping through the whole process for a favorable outcome.

This was not the first time this had happened in the NBA. According to Shelburne,

LeBron James was the founder of the player empowerment era. He invented this.

LeBron had similarly orchestrated and recruited players to play with him while he was with the Miami Heat, Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Lakers. In a Christmas day 2018 interview with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, he told her “I’ve always recruited. I’ve been trying to get guys to come play with me since like, 2007. I’ve got rejected a lot. But I’ve also have not got rejected a lot.

Has this pattern of player behavior become the new norm? How will it continue to emerge?

Here’s what Raptor’s President, Masai Ujiri had to say about free agency and Kawhi’s decision.

“This is the NBA and this is how it works… You can’t go and hide under a table and cry…”

Sounds like management has acquiesced and accepted this level of player empowerment. At least for now.

The Connection to Agile

So, what does this have to do with Agile?

In my opinion, the NBA’s “player empowerment era” feels a lot like “self-organizing teams”. The agile flavor of self-organizing teams is embodied in the Agile Manifesto’s principle #11:

“The best architectures, requirements and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.”

One great example of a company living this principle is Valve Corporation. Valve is a software company that develops video games and gaming distribution platforms. Valve employees are expected to figure out what project to work on and actively recruit other employees to join their projects. It’s as if Valve’s entire HR or rather “People” strategy is built entirely on self-organization.

I’ve observed some personal examples of self-organizing that I’d like to share.

  • What happens when you are part of a losing team? Many, many years ago, I was a Staff Engineer on a software development project involving over 30 people. The project was red and getting redder every day. Management tried their best to right the ship but nothing seemed to work. So, I and 3 other like-minded individuals got together and hatched a plan to take over and get it done. We shared our plan with management and they reluctantly stepped aside. We ended up shipping on time but also had a lot of fun culminating with an Oscars-like award show!
  • How did you end up working where you are today? Chances are some of you knew someone that already worked there. Someone that knew and could share the inside story of what it’s really like to work there. You either reached out to that person or they reached out to you to come join. People recruiting former co-workers has probably existed ever since work existed.
  • At one client, we ran a team self-selection experiment. It was my second time using self-selection to form cross-functional business teams. The practice of team self-selection is well documented by Sandy Mamoli. One of my favorite quotes from her is, “People are happiest and most productive if they can choose what they work on and who they work with.
  • My 10-month old puppy, Joey loves going to dog parks. She uses the sniff test to seek out compatible play-mates. It’s amazing to watch how dogs figure out who to play with and who to steer clear of. The choices Joey makes don’t always match the choices I would’ve made for her. She’s always right.

Self-organizing tendencies are natural and will happen if we allow and enable it.

And the Results…

Self-organizing teams is a powerful concept.
Self-organizing teams with purpose is an unstoppable force.

At Valve, the prime directive regarding what to work on is,

“Constantly be looking around for the most valuable work you could be doing.”

Their employee handbook suggests the following questions as guidance when looking around.

  1. Of all the projects currently under way, what’s the most valuable thing I can be working on?
  2. Which project will have the highest direct impact on our customers? How much will the work I ship benefit them?
  3. Is Valve not doing something that it should be doing?
  4. What’s interesting? What’s rewarding? What leverages my individual strengths the most?

Sounds like a win-win-win proposition for individual, company and customers. And their numbers back it up.

  • In 2012, Valve was more profitable on a per-employee basis than Google or Apple.
  • Their games have won multiple awards starting with their debut title, Half-Life winning over 50 Game of the Year Awards.
  • In 2017, Valve’s gaming distribution platform, Steam had estimated revenues of US$ 4.3B.

What has the NBA’s player empowerment era wrought?

According to April Marble in an article written for Lamar University’s Newspaper, “There is a group of elite players who want to win every championship”.

What would the Agile Manifesto’s principle #11 look like if it was tailored for the NBA? How about this?

The best teams, chemistry and championship runs emerge from self-organizing teams.

In the NBA, the goal of every team and player is to hoist the Larry O’Brien championship trophy – affectionately referred to by players as the “LOB”.

How has player empowerment helped achieve this goal? No need to look any further than the inventor of player empowerment – LeBron James. Let’s look at his results.

  • In 2010, he left the Cleveland Cavaliers to sign as a free agent with the Miami Heat. After successfully recruiting several elite players, he led them to back-to-back NBA Championships in 2012 and 2013.
  • In 2014, he re-signed with Cleveland, recruited some more elite players and led Cleveland to it’s first ever NBA Championship in 2016.
  • In 2018, he declined his player option to rejoin Cleveland. He signed instead with the Los Angeles Lakers. He recently successfully recruited Anthony Davis from the New Orleans Pelicans to join his Lakers.

Self-organizing teams is not a guarantee for achieving the prize, whatever that prize may be. At the very least, it can mean shorter gaps between the storming, norming and performing phases of team development.

Is There a Dark Side?

Can we go too far with self-organizing teams? For those of us who were ever picked last for teams, we may be compelled to say yes.

Is there a downside to the NBA’s player empowerment era? Some like April Marble in the Lamar University Newspaper article referenced earlier would suggest there is.

“… it’s starting to feel like their personal brand is more important than team success. As these players do everything to maximize their personal success, it makes me wonder, is anyone in the NBA actually happy?”

“The question is, at what point does player empowerment undermine the concept of a team?”

At this point, it’s no longer about self-organizing teams. It turns into the self-organizing 1% of elite players who are only looking out for #1.

The NBA hasn’t gone Agile after all.

Another Way?

Kawhi did not choose to come to the Toronto Raptors. He was traded by management. Yet the man accepted his fate. A man of few words and almost no affect, he modelled an almost Zen-like approach to the game. His teammates followed his lead. They became a team of destiny – not to be denied until they raised the LOB.

In one season, he and the team managed to achieve what no one or team had ever achieved in 23 previous seasons of Raptors’ franchise history. Did he do it solely to honor his commitment? Or was it tinged with a desire to raise his personal cachet as leverage for future empowered player negotiations?

Regardless of his motivations, I shall never forget the moments of euphoria he and his team delivered to Raptors’ fans and the city of Toronto.

And for that I thank the Klaw.

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