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Culture, Leadership

Agile Leadership Popovich style

I recently had an article given to me by a colleague about the legend Spurs basketball coach Gregg Popovich. In it he was interviewed about his philosophy for building a great team that can respond to change and adapt on its feet. The parallels for me were extreme when I think about the changing paradigm of leadership in business, I believe this is an analogy for future leadership consideration.

Let me highlight some of the great paragraphs.

On managing a high performing team Popovich refers to the continued need to nudge the team so complacency doesn’t set in. Even high performing teams can get caught simply executing the cadence or the ceremony at times losing sight of the purpose or outcomes you are trying to achieve.

Popovich: “………. Even though our core has been together so long, I still have to remind them, run a drill every now and then or have an emphasis in a scrimmage in a practice where we’re talking about. Maybe we’re holding the ball too long, and it’s not moving, and we’re not going good to great with our shots.”

On getting from good to great Popovich talks about the selflessness of high performing teams and the need to stay focused on the outcome rather than the means. As a basketball coach myself I constantly teach the concept of team over individual. Agile has a way of focusing everyone on common outcomes and shared success. Culturally this does not always work for individuals who strive for recognition or have personal aspirations. When we look at organisational designs and leadership you often see the results of individual over team, not looking end to end at the value you are trying to deliver to customers will often result in a ‘contested shot’. Contested shots in business include misaligned KPI’s, hierarchical lines, siloed work efforts and functional structures. As a result decision making is not about customer and value but numbers and targets. Processes are followed because they exist rather than seeking out continuous improvement.

Popovich: “There are a lot of good shots, but if you can turn that into a great shot, percentages go through the roof. Contested shots are really bad shots. People’s percentage goes down almost by 20, almost without exception… It takes time to get everybody to the point where they all buy in and understand how it’s good for the group to do things. You want to penetrate not just for you, but for a teammate. Penetrating because I want to make things happen. It could be for me. It could be for a teammate. It could be for the pass after the pass I make. As people start to realize that, then you get a flow and people start playing basketball rather than just running the play that’s called or making up their minds ahead of time.”

Lastly a great reference for leadership change, Popovich speaks about empowerment and the role of the leader. This is really about letting decision making sit with those closest to the customer, those with the knowledge to react and adapt instantaneously. Good companies grind to a halt when leaders feel compelled to make all of the decisions, the top down approach of the 80’s school of management can not react with the timeliness and accuracy required in todays market. A great leader needs to set direction, make the constraints transparent and visible then allow those in the work to innovate and react to deliver value to the customer. Just like the players on a basketball team employees are hired to be great and use their skill and knowledge, leaders must get out of the way or risk stymieing agility.

Popovich: “....A lot depends on the competitiveness and the character of the player. Often times, I’ll appeal to that. Like, I can’t make every decision for you. I don’t have 14 timeouts. You guys got to get together and talk. You guys might see a mismatch that I don’t see. You guys need to communicate constantly — talk, talk, talk to each other about what’s going on on the court. I think that communication thing really helps them. It engenders a feeling that they can actually be in charge. I think competitive character people don’t want to be manipulated constantly to do what one individual wants them to do. It’s a great feeling when players get together and do things as a group. Whatever can be done to empower those people …

“Sometimes in timeouts I’ll say, ‘I’ve got nothing for you. What do you want me to do? We just turned it over six times. Everybody’s holding the ball. What else do you want me to do here? Figure it out.’ And I’ll get up and walk away. Because it’s true. There’s nothing else I can do for them. I can give them some bulls—, and act like I’m a coach or something, but it’s on them….. Then you interject here or there. You call a play during the game at some point or make a substitution, that kind of thing that helps the team win. But they basically have to take charge or you never get to the top of the mountain.”

It just goes to show that a great leader is a great leader regardless of where they apply themselves. As we try to develop business agility and cultural change in our organisations we should broaden our vision to seek out success and copy it…wherever it lies.


About Gary O'Brien

A Principal Consultant with 20 years experience in ICT and a diverse background as an IT Business Strategist and People Manager. I specialise in helping executives, teams and individuals to adopt and improve Agile methods, principles and practice. Using a strong emphasis on facilitating organizational change, and the role of management and leadership in an Agile world. As an Agile Coach I look to help teams adapt Agile and Lean thinking to their specific environment and impediments they face. Experience includes working with CIO’s and senior leaders to create and execute a vision and strategy for and adopting Agile as an enterprise approach to improving outcomes for delivering customer value and optimising IT.


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