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    Entries in Sports (165)

    Tuesday
    Dec272016

    VACATION REWIND: Goal alignment sounds boring, but it can get you fired

    NOTE: I am out of pocket more or less until the New Year, so I thought I would re-air a few pieces that I liked from earlier this year for folks who may have missed them the first time. Hope you are having a great holiday season and a Happy New Year!

    From February - Goal alignment sounds boring, but it can get you fired, (NBA coaching edition)

    My favorite sport is basketball, my favorite league is the NBA, and my favorite team is the New York Knicks.

    Yesterday, my beloved Knicks relieved their head coach, Derek Fisher, of his duties about 2/3 of the way through his second season as head coach, with the Knicks currently possessing a 23-31 record, good (or bad) for 12th place in the NBA's Eastern Conference and about 5 games out of the 8th place, and the final playoff spot in the East.

    There were various reasons for Knicks' team ownership and management to make the move to release Fisher, but I want to focus on one in particular that has been cited in many of the reports of Fisher's firing. It's a classic HR/Talent Management concept as well - dull sounding goal alignment - the basic, but as we will see overlooked in the Knicks' case, idea that organizational goals should be defined, communicated, and understood throughout and down the organization. Playoffs? Playoffs?

    The goal in question that at least partially served as a catalyst for Fisher's demise: for the team to finish in the top 8 places in the Eastern Conference and make the NBA playoffs, one season (and a few new players) removed from last year's franchise worst 17- 65 record, and dead last finish in the East.

    Here's an excerpt from one report on the firing on how management and Fisher's boss, Knick team President (and NBA coaching legend), Phil Jackson were disapponted in some recent comments from Fisher regarding the Knick's goal of reaching the playoffs this season:

    More importantly, however, ESPN reports that Fisher wasn't developing as a coach quick enough for Knicks management. Some of that pressure may have been because the Knicks, for stretches, looked like a playoff team. Yet in the midst of a rough patch, Fisher, during an interview, said missing the playoffs wouldn't be a "disappointment."

    "No. Disappointed in what?" Fisher said in an interview on ESPN radio. "We’re a developing team with a ton of new players. ... We have to be reasonable about who we are and where we are and accept what is and not get caught up in what we should be and allow other people to define what our success is."

    Let's unpack that a little, exspecially for folks who don't follow the NBA as much as I do, (everyone).

    At the start of the season the Knicks were incorporating several new players, their best player (Carmelo Anthony), was working his way back into form following an injury/surgey last year, and after only 17 wins a yar ago, probably could not have been reasonably expected to compete for a playoff berth this year. Jackson and Fisher, both veterans of the NBA, had to have known this, even if they said different things publicly.

    But then a few things broke in the Knicks favor in the first half of the year. Anthony rebounded well from injury and was playing some good basketball, rookie Kristaps Porzingis was MUCH, MUCH better than anyone would have expected, and several new players made contributions to the team. The team was actually in contention for a playoff spot until their recent swoon - losing 9 of their last 10, culminating in the firing of Fisher yesterday.

    So the organizational goal at the beginning of the season was probably something along the lines of 'Let's be better than last year, let's develop some new players, and let's figure out which players are not going to cut it.'

    About half way in the season, due to some unexpected and better play, at least to Jackson and managment the goal shifted to 'Let's make the playoffs this season.'

    But somehow Coach Fisher either didn't get the message, or, didn't buy in to the new goal as one that was reasonable, and one upon which his performance should be evaluated.

    Against the first set of goals for the season, even at 23-31, Fisher's performance would have at least been 'acceptable.' The team is better than last year, rookie Porzingis has been a pleasant surprise, and (mostly) Fisher has found a way to be competitive game in and game out.

    But against the revised or re-calibrated goal of making the playoffs this season? Well it seems almost certain after losing 9 of 10 that the Knicks are not going to achieve that. Fisher publicly stating that missing that goal 'would not be a disappointment' said to Knicks management that their was a disconnect between what the organization was working towards and what one of its key managers, (Fisher), had in mind. And so Fisher had to go.

    It's ok for leaders to change course, set a new goal mid-stream, or ask even more from people who are performing well. But if those folks you are asking to do more and be better are not fully on board? Well then you have pretty different definitions of 'success' in the organization, and that ultimately will drive a wedge between leadership, management, and employees.

    Note: I have probably watched 45 or so of the Knicks 54 games this season. I don't think they are a playoff team either.

    Friday
    Dec232016

    Another way of winning

    I have only a very few things I care about deeply, (Note: I am talking about 'things', not people here). 

    One of those things is the New York Knicks who are, (for now), in the midst of their best season in the last few years. 

    One other sports-related thing I care about deeply are my beloved Liverpool Reds of the English Premier League who are also in the midst of a fine season, currently sitting in second place only a few points behind the leaders. Liverpool play an exciting, attacking brand of football/soccer, and as has been in the past few years have paired a dynamic and high scoring offense, with a porous, weak defense. Liverpool often concede goals in the most embarrassing ways, and with regularity.

    This lack of maturity and poise in their defense and goalkeeping is what is usually cited as the reason that despite their ability to create and score amazing goals, Liverpool will never be a real title contender. They simply for the most part have shown only one way to compete - run and press as much as possible, and hope to simply outscore their opponents 4-3 or 5-2, etc.

    While this approach can win some games, and is really entertaining to watch, it probably isn't the best way to win championships.

    Why the deep dive into a soccer club that you don't care about?

    Because a recent Liverpool match against rival Everton, won by my Reds 1-0, was interesting not only from a sports perspective, but what it also reminds us about the importance of adaptability in work, business, and our careers. 

    From the Bleacher Report coverage of the match:

    Since Liverpool's strong start to the 2015/16 Premier League season, some pundits have poured cold water on their title credentials by claiming that Jurgen Klopp's side don't have another way of winning than to blitz opponents away with relentless pressing.

    It has been claimed in media circles that Liverpool do not have the cliched "other way" of winning—something that was thoroughly dismissed as Klopp's side recorded a 1-0 success in the Merseyside derby.

    The Reds' first 1-0 win in the Premier League of 2016 arrived after rivals Everton had put them under firm pressure for the first half an hour, but Liverpool held on before taking control of the game in the second half and eventually getting their rewards deep into stoppage time.

    It was another way of winning. A way of winning that title contenders have had in the past and that Liverpool showed at Goodison Park.

    The specifics of the soccer tactics are not what matters here. What matters is that in soccer the very best teams usually have to be able to adapt at times from their preferred methods and strategies in order to achieve the greatest success. Liverpool, if they want to win the title, have to be able to win close, defensive battles like the Everton game, as well as the kinds of games they prefer, that are more open, and high scoring.

    This is an important to remember for all of us as well. Some of us succeed by simply trying to out-work or out-hustle our competition. But if that is all you can compete on, then your work and hustle will sometimes, maybe even often, get trumped by someone else who just has a better, more creative idea.

    And then there is the flip side to this, e.g., folks that maybe don't grind all that hard, but come up with enough clever ideas, decent recommendations, and can normally just outsmart their way forward. Sure, they can ride, sometimes for quite a while on their last good idea, but what happens when the daylight between the last and next great idea starts to increase? What happens then? Can they fill in the space where they are not really contributing or earning all that much with something else - maybe a stint of 12-hour days to at least be 'doing' something?

    The key is, as we see in the Liverpool example, to have 'another way of winning', or another way of efforting, competing, and contributing in order to in the long run give yourself the best chance for sustained success.

    No matter how great the idea is, someone else will copy it, forget you had the idea in the first place, or time will reveal it wasn't such a great idea after all.

    No matter how hard/long you work, (and you are probably lying about that a little), someone else out there is working a little bit harder/longer than you.

    By having 'another way of winning' you protect yourself from the competition and from relying too much on a single strategy that if/when it fails, you end up on the losing end of the 1-0 score.

    Go Reds.

    Have a wonderful weekend and holiday season!

    Wednesday
    Nov302016

    When the feedback loops get shorter, the performance process can get ruthless

    Quick foray into the world of sports, (Shock!), for a look at what can happen in an organization, and their view of what is unacceptable employee performance, when feedback loops, (or review periods if you like), get shorter and shorter. Kind of like what seems to be happening in many large organizations who are moving away from annual performance reviews/ratings and toward more frequent, regular, lightweight, feedback loops.

    The back story is from the University of Oregon, who yesterday terminated their head football coach Mark Helfrich after four years in charge, (and four years as essentially the #2 person in charge), and a impressive 37- 16 win-loss record as the head coach. From the USA Today article titled Mark Helfrich's firing sends chilling message to coaching trade:

    (After a loss to arch rival Oregon State), Helfrich met Oregon athletics director Rob Mullens to discuss his future Tuesday night and left the meeting without a job. Internal discussions about the football program began before Saturday’s loss, according to USA TODAY Sports. Since Saturday, Helfrich had been in coaching purgatory, with two feet straddling the line between retention and dismissal.

    There is something far bigger than just Helfrich at play at Oregon, which in the past two decades has grown into one of college football’s elite programs. First as the offensive coordinator and then as head coach, Helfrich deserves recognition as a key figure behind the Ducks’ surge.

    But this is about more than just Helfrich, and the reach of Tuesday’s decision extends far beyond Oregon.

    If you’re a college coach, take note: If Helfrich can be fired after one losing season, two seasons after the finest year in program history, after coaching the program’s only Heisman winner, with an eight-figure buyout — so can anyone else.

    A few things to unpack here, especially if you are not a fan of or at least familiar with some big trends in college athletics in general, and football specifically. The sport at its highest levels - think Alabama, Ohio State, Texas, and yes, even Oregon - has become a high-pressure, big-money endeavor for that set of 40 or 50 schools that choose to compete at that level. They invest enormous resources in facilities, recruiting, support staff, and they pay their coaches, especially head coaches, astronomical salaries.

    And in exchange for making these massive commitments of the school's resources, the administration expects to recoup that investment in revenue from broadcast and cable TV contracts, ticket sales, donations, and whatever else they can get their hands on. But to maximize those revenue streams, the football team needs to win lots of games, consistently, and every year. And that is where the feedback loop idea comes in.

    Let's take this back to the Oregon situation and the recently fired Helfrich. From 2009 - 2012 Helfrich was the Offensive Coordinator (the most important coach aside from the head coach) on teams that went a combined 46 - 7, including reaching the national title game in 2010. In 2013, Helfrich was promoted to Head Coach following the departure of former Head Coach Chip Kelly to the NFL and the Oregon team proceeded to go 11 - 2, 13 - 2, (with another national title game appearance), 9 - 4, before stumbling this year to a disappointing 4 - 8 record.

    So in eight years in 'executive' level positions with the Oregon football program Helfrich had what amounts to one bad year, this past year when the team struggled, and had its worst season in some time. In the past, and really the not so recent past, university administrators would look at that kind of record and see what has been, largely, fantastic performance. There may be only 3 or 4 other programs in the country who have won more games in that 8-year span than Oregon. But, and this is a big but, Helfrich's (and Oregon's) worst performance in some time was this past year, and since Oregon's, (and probably lots of other schools as well), window for performance evaluation is compressing, Helfrich was let go.

    Seven years, (with three as head coach), of impressive results. One 'not acceptable' year. And you're gone.

    No probation, no warning, no 'performance improvement plan'. Just, 'Thanks for your service. Take care.'

    Look, I don't feel that bad for Helfrich. He (and every other big time college coach), makes a ton of dough, and sort of gets that all of these jobs are pretty tenuous and often kind of cruel.

    But why I think it is important to consider is that a few years ago Helfrich's performance and contribution to the success of the organization would have been assessed with a wider angle lens. He certainly would have in the past been given at least one more season to try and 'right the ship', and return Oregon back to its expected winning standards, (standards he himself had a large part in creating with his coaching).

    But as the performance and feedback time horizon for college football coaches has contracted, 'What have you done for me lately?', then Helfrich's 'review' didn't really take into account, nor give him much credit for his efforts over his 8-year tenure at Oregon.

    I think this same kind of compression is one of the potential dangers for organizations who are moving towards more frequent, and real-time performance management and coaching kinds of schemes as well. As these windows shrink from what typically was once per year, the opportunity for HR and business leaders to get subjected to recency bias is much more present. If we are all being evaluated much more often, the chances of any given evaluation to be negative are much higher - even for those folks who would average out to be 'good' or 'really good' performers when considered over a longer time horizon.

    We all have bad days. Bad weeks even. Maybe a project we didn't really do the best with. But that may be one project out of 27 we wlll work on this year. In the past, one or two bad projects would more or less get lost in the wash of 25 other good ones. But when we move to a process that demands we assess performance pretty much all the time, then those one or two bad projects are going to stick out, be remembered, and probably carry more weight in the aggregate than they should.

    Helfrich had one bad year out of eight. In today's world of college football that is enough to get you fired.

    I guess the real question is how many bad days are you allowed to have in your job until you get fired too?

    Monday
    Nov142016

    Basketball, media, and robots coming for our jobs

    With the events of last week's election pretty much consuming and subsuming national attention last week you probably missed this really interesting story on the intersection of sports, media, and technology, one that raises some interesting questions about the future or automation and work.

    First a little background on the story from last week, then some thoughts on why it is interesting beyond the narrow, 'sports' focus.

    Last week Mark Cuban, famous rich guy and owner of the NBA's Dallas Mavericks suddenly revoked the media credentials at Dallas' arena for two Dallas based ESPN basketball writers, Mark Stien and Tim MacMahon. From the first reports that came out, Cuban made the decision to revoke the ESPN pair's credentials because he was disappointed that MacMahon would not be covering every Mavericks game, a change from prior years; and Stein, as a national NBA reporter was thought to only want to cover Mavs games to gain access to players and coaches from the Mavs opponents as they came through Dallas. It was reported that Cuban was particularly miffed by the fact that no ESPN media attended and reported on the Mavs opening night game.

    If this story was just about a team owner trying to play strong arm a major media outlet into providing more coverage for his team, it would not be all that interesting, and I would not have decided to write about it here.

    But a day or two after the initial media credential ban was announced, the story became more nuanced, and well - interesting. 

    What Cuban was also protesting, in addition to the reduced coverage of Mavs games in general by ESPN, was what he feels like is going to be the inevitable replacement for at least some human media game coverage - automated game summaries and stories generated by machine learning and algorithms.

    Here's some additional detail from an email Cuban sent to the web site Deadspin, who had been reporting on the Mavs-ESPN kerfluffle: (Note: I edited this some for brevity and clarity, the full email is at the link above)

    Two things triggered this whole thing. First was when I found out they (ESPN) had cut back or had always offered reduced coverage for 19 nba teams I had no idea this was going on

    The second was when espn didn’t cover our opening night and the resultant coverage on their website was a tweet, One highlight and a wire service story

    It made me realize that I had expected to be covered by all media, but it no longer was a given

    Even though espn was covering the same number of games, if they didn’t think it was a big deal to miss opening night. I had a problem. Not necessarily an espn problem , but a coverage problem

    And if it’s 30 games now for 19 teams. What would keep it from being 60 games for 25 teams ?

    What was their long term thinking ?

    When you realize that the hottest area in technology, and it’s not even close , is machine and deep learning , then it’s an easy step to see where this was going

    I told espn this was my concern. They didn’t say they were taking this path. They didn’t say they weren’t. But I voiced these concerns to them

    They said they would run their business . I can run mine

    So the next question is where would it leave Mavs fans who wanted game results coverage of nothing changed and espn didn’t send a reporter for 30 games ?

    It meant for 30 games and inevitably more in the future they wouldn't have a good experience with espn

    It meant it was likely that in the near term when they went to espn Dallas they find a couple videos, tweets and a wire service story

    How is that positive for any nba team or their fans when 30 games have second rate coverage ?

    And what happens and what message is sent to fans when those games are covered by an algorithm in the future ?

    Short term this is a Mavs issue. Long term it’s a certainty that our games will be covered algorithmically. Thats a problem across the board for us and the NBA

    IMO that devalues our brand . It devalues the fans experience. I feel strongly that now is the time to partner with those who commit to the Mavs and to sending real people to cover the games for Mavs fans

    It may seem like we are picking on espn or telling them how to run their business. We aren't. We are trying to protect ourselves and our fans and our future by partnering with those in the written media who commit to us

    I know the whole automation thing may not make sense to some. But to me this is no different than saying that streaming would change media in 1995. Or social media would change coverage of sports , etc

    Machine and deep learning and algorithmic coverage of sports events is going to happen.

    This isn’t about replacing writers. The best writers will always have a place

    This comes down to how do we value reporting on a game . Right now I value it more than espn and others and want to partner with the DMN FWST (media outlets), and use our own writers as our focus

    Really interesting takes coming from a guy who got rich back in the day, selling a technology company, (Broadcast.com) for millions to Yahoo. Cuban is no Luddite or technophobe.

    But at least in 2016, he (probably rightly), feels that despite advances in machine learning and automation that NBA game coverage is still best produced by actual human reporters and not the algorithms. And if you think that the entire idea of an algorithm replacing a human reporter to write sports event coverage think again - it is already happening mostly via technology created by a firm called Automated Insights. You can learn more about what they are doing with automated reporting of minor league baseball games here.

    Let's go back on one line of Cuban's email above - "Long term it’s a certainty that our games will be covered algorithmically. Thats a problem across the board for us and the NBA."

    In the same message where Cuban admits to using some tough negotiating tactics to push ESPN to continue to provide quality, human coverage of Mavs games, he admits that the algorithmic coverage of these games are a certainty. Today while technology like the one provided by Automated Insights is inferior to human reported coverage, over time it seems apparent to Cuban that the difference in quality will matter less to the media company than the sheer cost savings and efficiency gains that could be realized by replacing human reporters with a computer program.

    And Cuban has a problem with that, as it is in his best interests to have top-notch coverage of Mavs games in the media, as he sees that as an extension of his team and of the Mavs brand.

    I know this post has gotten pretty long, especially for a busy Monday, but I thought it important enough to try and lay out the context before hitting what I think is the main takeaway which is this:

    Just because something can be automated away or a job be done by a robot or a machine instead of a human doesn't mean that it necessarily should. Your customers will decide and balance the tradeoffs between costs, convenience, and quality about the products and services you are offering. 

    You might think, or your CEO might insist, that automation is always the way to go, but until the robot or the algorithm can do the job almost as good as the human it is replacing, then don't be too quick to agree.

    Think I am wrong?

    Take a look at the 'self-service' checkouts sometime at a busy grocery store or big box home improvement retailer?

    Anyone using those? Do they provide a great experience?

    Or would you rather wait an extra few minutes and check out with a human cashier?

    Have a great week all!

    Monday
    Aug222016

    Wanting to win is a great motivator. So is not wanting to come in last place

    Over the weekend I was coerced had the opportunity to participate in a 2-mile time trial with my son's high school cross-country track team, and the results of which were pretty sad and interesting at the same time.

    Let's step a bit to set some context. I heard about the Saturday morning time trial pretty late on Friday evening and was informed that the cross-country team coach encouraged the student runners to invite their parents and other family members to attend and even compete in the time trial, and in fact, many, many parents would indeed participate in the race. Armed only with that small bit of information, and since I am a very casual two or three times a week jogger, and I knew I could cover the two miles with collapsing, I agreed to show up early on run on Saturday morning.

    Fast forward to the actual morning of the race and it turns out that no, 'many, many' parents were not intending to participate in the race. It was just me, one other older guy, (I say older, I probably had him by 8 or 9 years), and about 30 high school cross-county athletes lined up to race the two miles. 

    My focus immediately shifted from ' I hope I can run a respectable time' to 'I can't let myself come in last place in this race', as a fairly decent-sized crowd of non-running parents, (as well as all the high schoolers), had gathered to watch the race (and eat donuts and bagels). 

    After unsuccessfully feigning a pre-race injury in order to try and back out of the race, I was off and running with the 30-odd kids and the one-odd other old dummy like me tricked into doing this.

    Here's how the rest of the race unfolded: first half mile or so I tried to stay connected to the back of the pack of kids, second half mile I lost contact with all but about five of the slowest kids, last mile or so I ended up passing a few kids, (most of whom I later found out were making their very first training run that morning).

    And oh yeah, the other 'old man' in the race? He stalked me, about 15-20 yards back for most of the race and then tried to outkick me, (term used very, very loosely), in the last 50 yards or so. Once I realized this, I managed to speed up enough to hold him off at the tape. I ended up placing about 25th out of about 31 or 32. My time, while slow, was about one minute per mile faster than I would normally run.

    What's the point of all of this, i.e., why place it on the blog?

    I was thinking about how incented I was to raise my performance level not to win or even try to win the race, because there was no chance of that, but to a level where I simply would not be the worst performer. And it worked, to a degree.

    The fear of being the worst, and having that be a public thing, drove me to perform better than I would had I been squarely in the middle of a typical pack of weekend 5K runners. I knew I had to push myself to beat even just one other person in the race and avoid the indignity of coming in last.

    All performance is relative. It is true in running, and in most every other activity we take on that calls for measurement, (and rewards).  And motivation to perform to be the best, while certainly powerful and meaningful, isn't the only kind of motivation that can drive improved relative performance.

    That's is from me. Happy Monday. Have a great week.