Lessons for Managers from Wisconsin and Duke Basketball

What can managers learn from Duke and Wisconsin’s basketball teams? Duke and Wisconsin are in the college basketball championship game tonight. They reached this stage through a great deal of hard work, skill, training and coaching.

Raw talent matters to mangers and even more to college basketball coaches. But raw talent alone won’t succeed (for college basketball teams a great system starved of raw talent would also fail).

The lesson many people miss is that college teams are mostly about developing a team that wins. Developing individual players is a part of that, but it is subordinate to developing a team. I think college coaches understand this reality much more than most managers do. But a management system that develops a team that succeeds is also critical to the success of business.

Managers can learn from successful college basketball programs the importance of creating a successful team. Part of doing that is developing individual skills of players. A huge part of it is developing an understanding of the system within which those players must operate.

Recruiting is an important part of developing an elite college basketball team. And it is critical to developing a world class business organization (though recruiting is less important to business, in my opinion). Recruiting is important in business, but it is easier to be very successful with good people, the skills needed in business are not often so rare as those needed in high level basketball.


College coaches have a responsibility for ensuring the academic success of their players. They also have a responsibility to develop their basketball skill, in order for those players to contribute to their team and for many at elite programs for their future careers.

Manager’s responsibility is not equal to that of a college coach; there is certainly more control by a coach than a manager. That said, nearly all managers would do a much better job if they focused mush more on building the knowledge and skill of their staff: both as individuals and in how the employees fit into the current and future needs of the business.

College coaches do a much more thorough job of planning for the future (even if fans are mainly focused on the last results and the next game). College coaches realize they need to develop and recruit for their needs next month and next year.

Coach Ryan, at Wisconsin, is praised for developing his players over the 4 years at school, and rightfully so. He works with those players for years so that they are ready when they are needed. So does Coach K (who the heck knows how to spell that name?) at Duke. Coach K doesn’t get as much credit because he recruits more talented players and some of those leave in a year or two.

But the truth is (even as a Wisconsin fan), Coach K develop his players tremendously. To some extent he has a different challenge in that he has more turnover and so needs a system that can account for that; and he does so very well. Coach Ryan has a system that works very well for him. His players mainly were seen as having less talent than those they face from the top 20 schools (it isn’t that Wisconsin players have little talent, they have several highly rated players when they were in high school – it is just that schools like North Carolina, Arizona, Kentucky and Duke have many players on the bench rated higher than all but a couple of Wisconsin players when they were in high school).

The key to successful programs over the long term is a system that works to have highly competitive basketball teams. Even those coaches that get the top talent have the same challenges after that (and usually an additional one of higher turnover which creates a challenge in having those highly skilled parts work together as a team). And even Coach Ryan has a more difficult job than many managers with such high turnover. The longest a player can be a highly productive worker is 4 years. Often it is much closer to 2 to 3 (either they are so talented they can contribute right away, in which case they will likely leave before 4 years, Sam Decker, for example) or they are like Kaminsky and take 2 years without playing much and then have 2 tremendous years).

Kaminsky and Duke’s center, Okafor were 1 and 2 all year in player of the year talk. Kaminsky ended up taking those awards, as I said he should: Frank Kaminsky is clearly the College Basketball Player of the Year. Those players will be important but they will not individually decide the game.

The team of players and coaches will determine who wins (along with luck). The players tonight will make the plays on the court that determine the outcome. But the coaches will make decisions tonight that impact the system within which those players are allowed to operate. The coaches will give direction and make decisions about how the players are to act. And the work the coaches (not just the head coaches but the assistant coaches also) have done for the past 4 years and especially this year, and in creating a game plan for tonight based on research into the other teams strengths and weaknesses will greatly impact the outcome.

While the market for players making the NBA is very limited, elite teams will have multiple players whose careers will set them for life. And there is a much greater market for players internationally. Just because players are not going to make the NBA does not mean they have no future career in basketball. Many observers look at a team like Wisconsin and think it is very different from Kentucky in the career potential but that difference is less than people think. Yes, Kentucky will have many more very successful NBA players but many Wisconsin players in the last 10 years have worked as professional basketball players. So the professional desire to develop their individual skills is not as different as many people think.

Enjoy the game. Go Badgers.

And tomorrow, think about how you can improve your organization by thinking more like a coach.

Related: Using Randomization in Sports to Improve ResultsMy father had suggestions for coaches at UW-MadisonPoor Results Should be Addressed by Improving the System Not Blaming IndividualsTaking Risks Based on EvidenceHow to Sustain Long Term Enterprise ExcellenceWhy Don’t Football Players Just Thrown the Ball Out of Bounds to Stop the Clock

2 thoughts on “Lessons for Managers from Wisconsin and Duke Basketball

  1. Pingback: Lead Change Group | Carnival of HR – April 22, 2015 Edition

  2. Pingback: Why Do People Fail to Adopt Better Management Methods? » Curious Cat Management Improvement Blog

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