How to learn from from the Boston Celtics

Here’s an interesting e-mail I received recently:

Dear Scott,
I know you played and love basketball. What are your thoughts on Boston Celtics regarding their championship run. The context I am referring is with respect to your essay #47 – Teams and stars – All star teams lose. It seems stars sacrificed a lot to get an NBA ring. Do we have some thing similar to a NBA ring in IT world where people can sacrifice and commit for the greater good. How can we get there? Please advice and thanks very much. -Joson

Great question Joson. Here you go:

  • Great managers hire great talent. Boston’s theme this year was ‘the big three’. They managed to secure three high profile, veteran all star players on the same team. They didn’t call it the big one, or the big one and a half, or the big one and the little two. “Hiring great talent” is obvious advice, but few managers invest big. Danny Ainge bet his job to get these people. Would you do that? If you do go way out of your way to get great people, including paying them what they deserve, and providing an environment where they can thrive, many problems ordinary teams face go away. Even the Laker’s playoff run hinged a great mid-season aquisition: Pau Gasol.
  • Focus on the fundamentals. The Celtics in some ways are a boring team to watch: they bet heavily on defense, the most fundamental strategy in the game. The analogy to management is avoiding fancy methods and hype: instead rewarding people for focusing on the core activities that make the business function. Coach Doc Rivers did a great job at helping his team to focus on what mattered most: not scoring averages, not clever plays, but solid fundamentals.
  • Reward team based behavior. Sports teams have a huge advantage in that at the end of every game the entire team either shares the win, or shares the loss. A smart manager finds ways to get teams to feel that their fate is shared. Either by giving individual bonuses tied to team performance, letting the team decide its own goals, or providing other incentives and rewards for behavior that contributes to the greater good. When your best talent (Boston’s big three) is committed to putting the team first, everyone else falls in line. Even the Laker’s Kobe Bryant, league MVP, was noted this season for worrying more about helping the team, than his own individual performance.
  • Trust your people. True, this is even more obvious advice everyone knows: but few practice it. Doc Rivers and Danny Ainge had more than 4 lousy seasons before this year’s championship. Paul Piece had 8 years as the team’s main star with frustrating playoff loses and losing seasons. Ray Allen had the worst shooting slump of his career in the playoffs, but was kept as a starter and had a fantastic final series. There was a lot of trust in the Celtics organization to keep these people in key roles despite prior outcomes. By contrast, Avery Johnson, another great coach, was fired from the Dallas Mavericks this year for his team’s failure to reach the 2nd round of the playoffs.
  • Use the past as power. The Celtics franchise has a long history of success. This season they called on that tradition dozens of times, using it as leverage to motivate players and attract fans. A good manager finds a tradition in their own org, or borrows one from another org, and uses it as leverage. Steve Jobs hung a pirate flag over the Macintosh team to rally them and use the past, even someone else’s past, as power.

2 Responses to “How to learn from from the Boston Celtics”

  1. Arjun


    How does Michaelangelo mean we should free ourselves when he says, “Lord, free me of myself so i can please you.” One way i found was closing my eyes. That forces me to concentrate on my surrounding environment. It also takes away all of my self-consciousness. Are there any other tricks that can help me “free me of myself.”

    what do you think great artists do to free themselves?

    This i feel is the greatest obstacle for any man.

    Arjun Shete

    P.S You did’nt look free and relaxed on the CNBC show. Not a criticism but just an observation i thought i should share with you.



  1. […] “How to learn from from the Boston Celtics” – Scot Berkun Dear Scott, I know you played and love basketball. What are your thoughts on Boston Celtics regarding their championship run. The context I am referring is with respect to your essay #47 – Teams and stars – All star teams lose. Click here to continue reading […]

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