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5 Key Business Lessons from National Championship Game

April 10, 2015 - 13 Comments

As a big basketball fan, coach, business leader and parent, I’ve been thinking about the multitude of lessons that can be learned from the National Championship game Monday night.  Here’s my quick take on some of the key points:


1) Relentless adaption is key to success:
Coach K has been widely praised this week for finally figuring out how to win with “one-and-dones.” He also adapted to recruiting and coaching one-and-dones, he’s using more pro sets in his offense, and he even adapted to using a zone defense.   When a hall of fame coach says “we’re going to review everything about our program”, that’s significant.  Clearly it worked – he realized they needed to adapt and adjust.  The same is true of so many companies who get comfortable and fail to keep innovating and re-examining their success.

2) There’s no substitute for experience + new energy and talent:
Both Duke and Wisconsin benefited from incredible senior leadership. While Duke had some of the best freshmen in the country, they went so far as to call it “Quinn Cook’s team”. Wisconsin clearly was led by Big Frank Kaminsky as the role model for leadership. Both of these players were the rock of their teams, and were looked to by the others for advice and leadership.  Did you also notice how Big Frank was the first one to really outplay Okafor all year?  He had studied every one of Okafor’s moves and was able to anticipate them.  It’s the first time all year that Okafor looked like a freshman – and that was because Kaminsky out-prepared him and played like the senior he was.  How many of our companies really take the time to study and anticipate the moves of our competitors over time? How can we best leverage the right balance of experience on our teams by combining it with new youthful energy from new hires regardless of their age? Blending seasoned experience with new energy and talent is the key to many great teams.  Studying the competition takes time to do so – and real leadership.

3) Mastering the basics is so underrated:
Both Duke and Wisconsin have perfected the pick and roll, pick and pop and all the refinements of the classic two man game. Did you notice all the ways they used it in the game?  So basic and yet so hard to master with such precision and execution excellence.  Great companies never lose sight of refining the basics – great product simplicity, keeping the customer as the center of all work, sticking to core competencies vs reaching too far……I could go on and on.  Just this past week the shoemaker Crocs announced a “return to the basics”, after concluding they had strayed too far from their core.  There are dozens of examples like this across most industries.

4) Always be gracious in defeat:
It was painful to see Bo Ryan complaining about the officiating nonstop in the post-game. Being gracious in defeat is one of the most important signs of maturity.  And by the way – where was his PR leader?  S/He should have pulled Bo aside in the heat of the post-game to remind him of the classic post-game PR formula – praise the other team, praise your team, then talk about key highlights of the game.  It’s so basic – and yet when the formula isn’t followed – so obvious!   It’s probably safe to say that he was not exactly the model of the brand image that Wisconsin hoped to portray on national TV on Monday night.

5) It takes the whole team:
Lots of articles are being written this week about the emergence of Grayson Allen for Duke. The articles all indicate that he’s been the hardest working guy in practice all year with his intensity, hustle and effort. The coaches kept inspiring him to work hard and be patient for his moment in the spotlight to arrive.  Well it certainly did!  How many of us as leaders are constantly coaching some of our unheralded teammates to keep working hard so that they can emerge at the right time?

Lessons from Basketball

I love sports as a teaching tool for business.

Let me know what other lessons you saw in the title game on Monday night!


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  1. So good examples, Thanks for sharing with us.

  2. Excellent analogies. All good points – The Energy industry, like manufacturing, is dealing with ‘the big crew change’ and so point 2 (There’s no substitute for experience + new energy and talent) is critical for their survival, not only in Utilities, but in Oil and Gas, especially with what’s happening with the price of oil right now. That price of oil means the successful organizations will HAVE to follow your point 1 ‘Relentless adaption is key to success’. Some are being forced to adopt your point 3 (the basics), whether they like it or not, just to survive. We’re going to see a lot of mergers and acquisitions moving forward – and those targeted for ‘take-over’ had better follow point 4! As we’re seeing in the Oil and Gas industry and elsewhere – successful teamwork between IT (Information Technology) and OT (Operational Technology)folks will be a key to success for these companies (to address cybersecurity, operational efficiencies and grow their business), so point 5 very timely!

    By the way – shame you’re in RTP – my 12 year old could certainly use some of your basketball coaching here in San Jose (I was a rugby player, so he’s teaching me about zone defense, rather than the other way around!).

  3. Great post and wonderful insight.

  4. Agree with Michael’s point of view. I do believe that the same principles to win a game applies to any business these days and it is a perfect balance between strategy, execution, having the right talent in place and keep the team fully aligned towards a common vision.

    Understanding the vision and what the business is trying to achieve is key. In any game every single participant regardless their role (player, supporter, trainer, etc) understand very well that they are there to win the game so the same is valid for business. Sometimes we made some assumptions around people understanding of vision and mission and makes a little bit hard to achieve goals and objectives.

    Thanks for sharing!

  5. Michael,
    It just shows that adapting and adjusting to change reaches far beyong the technology world. The economy as a whole can learn from this type of keep examing, redefining and leveraging the right balance while not letting go of the vision. The five learning points listed are influential.
    I have learned that even when you lose, its a win situation if you can learn from it.

  6. Great examples everyone – thank you for sharing!

  7. My 13 year old daughter is learning about #5, she’s a bit of a ball hog on her BB team but she’s getting much better. We’ve been talking about the importance of teamwork and how critical it is to rely on the people around you to win. This is true in sports and in business. I’m privileged to work with a great team, they make me much better than i could ever be by myself.

  8. As another parent, coach, and business person, there are so many lessons that overlap daily in those areas of life. I see this with point #3 especially. In business and in sports, there is nothing that increases success like doing the “little things” right – every. single. time. Execution of fundamentals creates the foundation to make spectacular “big” plays possible. That diving catch? Only possible when the fielder was in the right position for that batter before the pitch. The RB that gained 90 yards for a TD? Only possible because a TE kept his feet under him and squared his shoulders for the block. Huge digital campaign success? Only possible because someone remembered to A/B test those creative assets.

    Thanks for a great post and great reminder that being well practiced makes it happen in all areas of life.

  9. Love the sports tie-in, especially #1 (Relentless adaption is key to success). The world is changing so rapidly now that adapting and innovating is critical.

    Lesson I learned from watching the title game is that there is no one way to do something. Duke and Wisconsin teams were built completely different (one-and-doners vs no McDonald’s All-Americans) and both managed to make it to the title game. Differences aside they both shared what you mentioned in #2, #3 and #5.

  10. Excellent key takeaways from the National Championships. I would also like to add during March Madness, any team has a chance to win and upset the favorite. Business Lesson #6: Don’t ever give up!

  11. Love 4 and 5: losing gracefully is indeed a quality of maturity and also of having balance. An important factor for any individual or organization. And teamwork is what makes everything function. Anyone who thinks one person will win the game for the whole team needs to look a little closer at how a sports team works together. There may be individual “stars” with a known name, but without the team, that individual will never be known and never win.

    • Oh I love your take,Tina! Quoting from @JamesKraintz “There are people behind The scenes and in the trenches making a difference every day. Those people are the #GameChangers”