business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

Possibly the only puzzle more complex than understanding what’s on the minds of your customers is the challenge of assembling a work team that’s both efficient and effective working team. Too often, the best moves somehow defy all logic.

Kevin and I got a joint lesson in this last week when we were told of the “Ewing Theory,” an idea created by a sportswriter who believed that teams featuring now-retired basketball star Patrick Ewing tended to improve once he left. The reasoning was that his absence caused the rest of the team to rise up and play better.

(The theory isn't perfect. Ewing’s past teams - Georgetown University and the New York Knicks - also never achieved much success after him.)

But the theory can still hold up. Consider this year’s World Series, currently heading into its deciding games. The Washington Nationals never made it this close to a championship before, which is all the more surprising considering that just this year the team lost Bryce Harper, its best position player and arguably one of the sports’ five best active players.

Yet, minus Harper, they have actually done better. Experts following the team have speculated that Harper’s absence created a new dynamic on the team. Suddenly without his outsized presence on and off the field, new leaders stepped up and the Nationals became stronger as a group. No one player seems to possess Harper’s skills, but thanks to a strong organization the Nationals found a mix of players who actually improved on what they had in the past.

(For non-sports fans, don’t feel badly for Harper. In the last off-season he signed a $330 million dollar contract with the Philadelphia Phillies.)

Now think about that with the teams you work on or with. Unlike in sports, we don’t have easily understood objective measures of performance such as batting average or runs batted in. But we have all worked on teams with co-workers who made us all worse despite their skills. (Hopefully everyone isn’t thinking of me right now.)

This co-worker may be great at his or her own tasks, but lousy at the small things that help the entire team move forward. Or they may demand too much spotlight or credit, thereby diminishing the fabric of the entire team. Let’s be honest, there are countless ways one individual can hold back the entire group, whether by hindering the performance of those around them or simply making the entire group wish they were working individually.

In other words, we are all aware of the “Ewing Theory” or maybe as it will now be called, the “Harper Theory.”

And this again is where managers play such an important role. Team managers much recognize that strong teams are diverse requiring many varied talents and personality types. Not everyone is an extrovert and frankly that’s good. You need people who work in different styles and methods to push the team faster than ever.

What’s more, managers must recognize that the best worker, the Bryce Harper of tasks, may not be helping the process along if they damage the ability of the team to perform. It’s an incredibly hard call to determine that a superstar performer may be doing that, but that’s what managers must recognize and confront.

The Nationals may not win baseball’s championship this year (they still have a chance though) but they have provided a wonderful example of addition by subtraction.

The Phillies, however, are hoping for addition by addition. Apparently recognizing that they need a stronger manager to handle Harper and his fellow players, the Phillies just signed Joe Girardi - who had a winning record managing the New York Yankees, taking the team to its 27th World Series title in 2009 - to manage the team next year.

Team players. Great manager. The elements are there but, as they say, they still have to play the games.

As. Do. You.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available on Amazon by clicking here. And, his book "Business Rules!" is available from Amazon by clicking here.

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