We Can Learn Some Things About Collaboration From Duke’s Coach K

August 2, 2012 - 1 Comment

Duke University Basketball Coach, Mike Krzyzewski, Coach K to his fans, is arguably the most successful college basketball coach of all time. Under his leadership, his teams have won numerous national championships along with recording a win percentage that is the envy of any team, regardless of sport. In little more than a decade he managed to build a mighty record of success.

However, during the 1994-1995 season he left after twelve games to have back surgery. Quite surprisingly, his beloved Blue Devils fell flat without him. Recognizing that his team wasn’t able to continue without him, upon his return, Coach K knew he needed to change the way he led his team. He analyzed the network talent that was his coaching organization and introduced changes that ensured that he wasn’t the failure point. And it worked: in the past 17 years, Duke has never had a repeat of the failure of the 1994-1995 season.

While you and I won’t ever be in Coach K’s position as an iconic basketball coach, we can learn from his model for transforming the leadership of our organization and improving collaboration. I am one of a few Experience Strategists here at Cisco focused on delivering those experience strategies. It is our mission to ensure the brand experience, from customer to employee is great. And, part of making sure the experience is great for everyone involves making sure that the organizational structure is fail proof.

Over the last fourteen years, my team has been focused on collaboration work practices and the development of technology solutions that help enable the natural behavior that we all have innately. Our purpose is to naturally enable and connect human beings. Our own organizations within Cisco have helped further that development, including our adoption of our enterprise social software, Cisco WebEx Social. One approach we and other companies find to be very valuable throughout this process is Organizational Network Analysis (ONA).

ONA provides a view into the inner workings of an organization. The beauty of this analysis is that it provides a clear and tangible visual representation of how an organization communicates. Instead of the traditional hierarchical organization chart, it provides a view into the individual relationships of the members of an organization. It also provides actionable insight into the roles each member play in the team or organization. The relationships we internalize but can’t articulate easily between people are represented graphically, where each participant in the study is represented as a node, and their relationship to other people are represented as lines.

Figure 1: Organizational structure chart comparison

In this graphical representation, Rob Cross, a professor who consults with businesses on how to apply social network analysis ideas to critical business issues for actionable insights and bottom-line results, shows us a team’s formal structural organization chart (on left), and then the ONA derived informal structure (on right). Based on the ONA structure, you can infer all sorts of things on how the team operates. The SVP, Jones, is not actively involved in the team, but the individual contributor Cole is a major hub. If Cole left, the team would be severely impacted, while if someone like Stock left it would not be felt nearly as pervasively across the team. You can imagine what Coach K’s informal structure looked like when he left for back surgery; he was Cole in the above graphic. When he left his organization’s connections were severed and fell apart.

Imagine how this kind of informal ONA structure would benefit your organization. These are some of the benefits I found to be most useful as a team leader and in our work as an experience design team:

  • Identifying people that behave as change agents
  • Identifying people who connect the organization together
  • Assessing the communication health of an organization
  • Assessing the impact of a person leaving a given team
  • Assessing potential organization modifications
  • Comparing the nature of high and low performing organizations
  • Identifying where collaboration happens, or doesn’t
  • Assessing leaders’ effectiveness

Figure 2: ONA Showing Degree of Influence

Figure 2: This measure provides us with insight into who has strong relationships with the largest number of members within the network. It can then be broken down further to see what type of influence these individuals may have. There are two measures of degree: In-degree, which indicates which members of the team sot after and are highly respected in the network, and Out-degree, which often indicates those team members who are more influential in the network.

Are you planning to make a change within your organization, or looking into how to help your teams work better together? Think about how ONA can help. For example, ONA can help identify the change agents, known as catalysts, in an organization. This allows you to target training and communications to these select few, maximizing your influence while minimizing the level of effort.

Our team found the insights and ability to scale ONA extremely helpful and based on this successful internal application of ONA, our Cisco Advanced Services team provides ONA as a services offering to our customers.

While we don’t have Coach K. here at Cisco we do have a good win percentage. If you want to learn more, here are a few references on ONA from leading industry researchers that we’ve found helpful:


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  1. Michael, thanks for the article, wasn’t aware of the concept of ONA and thanks to this post I’ll be reading and learning more about it.
    Being a solutions advisor, I think we often don’t dedicate enough attention to the context that surrounds the technology or products we think will improve the way a company communicates and collaborates and go straight into design and implementation. ONA does address two of the three pillars of a good collaboration solution: people and processes (guess what the third one is 🙂 )