The Power of Skills Compatibility: Lessons from Olympic Basketball

As many of you know, the U.S. Men's Olympic Basketball Team won the gold medal at the just-completed Rio Olympic Games.  This marks the 3rd straight gold medal for that group in this event.  Casual fans that may not stay abreast of the successes and failures of the Olympic Team, may just assume that U.S. basketball has dominated the Games since the original "Dream Team" was put together back in 1992.  But that's not the case.

In fact, the 2004 Men's Olympic Basketball team is now infamous for having lost 3 games during the tournament and settling for a bronze medal despite boasting NBA superstars such as Lebron James, Tim Duncan, and Dwayne Wade.


So what happened?

Certainly the quality of international competition improved quite dramatically over the 12 years since the original Dream Team, so the talent differential was not as great.  Also, a number of established stars, such as Shaquille O'Neal, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen opted not to play for various reasons.  However, the primary reason for their failure had little to do with talent. Rather, their issue wasa decided lack of teamwork.

The 2004 squad was a random collection of players pulled together at the last possible moment and lacking in complimentary skills.  The roster had only one true "point guard," offered very little in the way of outside shooting, and consisted of players who shined playing what's known as "isolation basketball," which isn't as effective in international play due to differences in both the rules and the manner in which the game is officiated.  In other words, these players weren't comfortable playing with each other and weren't used to playing the style of basketball needed to win.


The disappointment from that Olympic experience led to the Hiring of Jerry Colangelo as Director of USA Basketball in 2005.  Colangelo immediately put in place a program designed to develop more teamwork.  Some of the changes made to that program include:


  • Creating continuity in the coaching ranks by hiring Mike Krzyzewski, who coached the 2008, 2012, and 2016 teams (prior to 2005, the coaching staff changed for each Olympics)
  • Asking for a 3-year player commitment to participate in the Games, which meant that players could learn how to play together and get used to playing under different rules
  • Constructing the roster with an eye toward complimentary skills instead of "star power." Colangelo and Krzyzewski wanted each team to have a range of skill sets particularly suited for international play, including players with a "pass first" orientation, three point shooters, and defensive stoppers
  • The results speak for themselves.  The United States has won Gold at the past 3 Olympic Games, thereby reestablishing itself as the world power in this sport.

Turning to the world of OpEx, we often talk about the importance of "teamwork" as an important contributor to operational improvement, but I wonder whether we’re establishing the conditions that really create it. 

We should ask ourselves:
  • Do we strive for continuity in our leadership ranks so the work teams can understand how their leaders work and what is expected of them? OR Does constant leadership churn inhibit productivity?

  • Do we reward teamwork or do we send the message that it’s not that important by justifying the behavior of non-team players?

  • Do we seek complimentary skills when forming teams? OR Do we tend to just throw people together based on proximity or resource availability?

  • Do we provide tools that foster team collaboration?

If there’s a lesson to be learned from the experience of the US Men’s Basketball team over the past decade, it’s that effective teamwork can be a major force multiplier, but achieving those benefits requires putting the conditions in place to foster teamwork.

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The EON Platform team works tirelessly to write content that provides valuable, actionable insights.