Two Case Studies in Strategic Thinking: Rick Pitino and Billy Beane

Pitino-BeaneThis article describes two well-known executives who changed strategic contexts: one used patterns and analogies well and was successful; the other didn’t. First we will examine the experience of Rick Pitino – an outstanding college basketball coach – who struggled with coaching in the NBA. Then we will examine how Billy Beane of the Oakland A’s used creative desperation and a healthy skepticism to rethink his managerial approach with the Moneyball-era Oakland A’s baseball team.

Rick Pitino: Patterns for College Strategy Do Not Translate to the NBA

As a college coach, Pitino had a won-loss record of 371-137, as of 1997, and won a national championship with the University of Kentucky. Pitino agreed to move to the professional ranks to become the GM and coach of the Boston Celtics. This move created a great deal of excitement for the Boston fans. Unfortunately all involved, the excitement and optimism turned to anger when the team failed to perform to expectations. With a record of 102-146, Pitino left to return to the college ranks midway through his third season, hugely unpopular.

What went wrong?  How could this great strategist fail?  In an article titled, “Lessons Learned (and Forgotten) from Celtics’ Failed Rick Pitino Experiment,” Grant Hughes writes,

“Pitino’s coaching style, just like the persona he employed in interviews, was very much “Rick-centric.” On the court, that meant he had to win on his own terms. The full-court presses and mass substitutions that led to so much success in college were going to define his Celtics teams, consequences be damned. Even when it became clear that the desired results of Pitino’s preferred style—forced turnovers, a fast pace, general chaos—weren’t leading to wins, the coach stuck stubbornly to his guns.

Hughes points out this key to success in the NBA: Players dictate strategy—not the other way around.  Antione Winfield, who played for Pitino at Kentucky and later at Boston reinforces the idea of patterning actions around players, observed in a different interview:

“What I noticed playing for Coach (Pitino) at that time, I think you have to be patient. I think if you look at Rick Pitino and what he did in that era, he traded probably thirty guys. “He’d sign guys and trade them right away. His patience level was so low. You have to be patient and you have to build something. You have to start with one or two guys and kind of build around them, and that’s a lot of things college coaches don’t want to do because they’re so used to winning at the collegiate level, at such a high level. When they’re winning 85, 86, 87 percent of their games, and then you get to the NBA level and it’s not the same.”

From a strategic thinking perspective, it seems like the problems are rooted in the patterns and context: basketball is different at the college level and at the professional level. The learning is to develop a sensitivity for patterns and context. Pitino perhaps suffered from what Gary Klein calls “passive stance” or what others call frame blindness.

The Coach’s Learning

Gary Washburn, writer for the Boston Globe interviewed Pitino. Looking back on the experience, Pitino says,

“The [fact of the] matter is I didn’t do a good enough job as an executive. It also taught me about wearing a lot of hats, focusing on what you can do. It was a class organization. They treated me great. I [had] nothing but great things to say about it when Brad [Stevens] got the job. It’s just that it didn’t work out for me, but it did work out for me because without the Celtics, I wouldn’t have learned all about failure and all about humility.”

Gary Washburn, offers this observation in the same article:

It taught Pitino he is better at convincing parents in a rural Kentucky home to allow their child to start his next phase of life at Louisville than crossing his fingers for good luck in the NBA draft lottery.

Billy Beane: Reinvents Himself, His Organization, and His Industry

Billy Beane, General Manager of professional baseball’s Oakland A’s, is now well known from the book and movie, Moneyball.  As a player, Beane played in the majors for several years with different teams, finally spending more time in the minor leagues than he cared for.  He chose to end his playing career in 1990 to take a job as an advance scout. In 1997, he was promoted to General Manager, taking over from Sandy Alderson. Using sabermetrics techniques, the team made baseball’s playoffs despite one of the lowest payrolls in the game. Beane completely reversed traditional wisdom about how to build a team, coming to the conclusion that scouts had no idea of what they were talking about, and looking for new statistically-based measures of productivity.

Beane was successful in part because he changed his own personal patterns. Says Sandy Alderson, who was the A’s General Manager and brought Beane into the organization, says in the Michael Lewis’ book, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game,

“What Billy figured out at some point was that he wanted to be more like me than like Jose Canseco.”  Addressing Beane’s change of mindset and patterns, Alderson said, “Billy shed every one of his player-type prejudices and adapted. Whereas most of the people like him would have said, ‘that’s not the way we did it when I played.

It’s instructive to note Beane’s own perspective,

“If baseball’s all you can do and you know that’s all you can do, it breed in you a certain creative desperation.”

As a concluding thought, it’s rather interesting that both men suffered a humiliation.  Beane’s was that of a player struggling in the major leagues, and being relegated to the rougher life of an aging minor-league player. Beane’s marriage also broke up at the same time he concluded his playing career. Pitino’s quote on learning humility from his Boston experience shows growth, and perhaps has helped him be more strategic as a person and a coach in his return to college ranks.

As a strategic thinker, you must have a sensitivity to patterns and context.  Too, perhaps much of journey to become more competent in thinking strategically might be in the way that you learn – and bounce back – from failures. Do you agree?

Action Without Thought is Impulsiveness, Thought Without Action is Procrastination

Action with thought is impulsiveness thought without action is procrastination - Greg Githens

Impulsiveness is “the trait of acting suddenly on impulse without reflection.” Impulses are often described as “whims, sudden involuntary inclinations, unpremeditated, and instinctual urges.” Impulsiveness is good in some situations: an almost child-like quality marked by spontaneity, playfulness, and humor.

On the other hand, impulsiveness may be nothing more than bad habit and selfishness. When impulsiveness is unwanted, the message seems to be this:

think – that is, reflect at a deeper level – before acting.

The opposite of strategic thinking might be mindlessness. The characteristics of mindless thinking are little concern with outcomes, present focused, focus on concrete elements of the task, little imagination, little courage, lost in details, and unconcerned with opportunities.  When scientists want to study people with high degrees of impulsivity, they research inmates in prisons!

Procrastination is a habit of delaying action on something that is important. It is often habitual and arises from analysis paralysis, lazy thinking, fear, or unclear values. Procrastinators should take action, but don’t.

Procrastination is not an intentional delay to minimize the probability of loss.  As psychologist Piers Steel (author of the The Procrastination Equation) points out, procrastination is an irrational delay. Thus, procrastination is not strategic in the sense of avoiding threats or capturing opportunities.

Both Impulsiveness and Procrastination Are Disengaged Thinking

The extraordinary availability of gadgetry – smartphones and the like – seems rule people’s life: stories emerge of people checking for updates in the most inappropriate of places or times: church, job interviews, seminars, driving, and even sex!

Gadgetry and impulsiveness seem to go together. People need to think through the consequences.  Impulsive use of gadgetry is also procrastination, in that it defers action something important that you know you should be doing (developing a spiritual life, showing a basic courtesy to an interviewer, paying attention to new learnings, being a safe driver, being intimate).

People who thinking strategically focus on that which is important to their success. They know that there are more and less important things in life, and they need to make choices about when to be bold and when to be cautious.

To Think Strategically is to Balance Thought and Action

Both impulsiveness and procrastination seem to be in tension with each other. That means that each is a polarity to manage, and the key in any polarity is to manage a balance. How?  First, I try to monitor and manage my attention so that I don’t spend too much time in thought, and to catch myself when I am impulsively plunging into action.  Even better, I trying to both “think and do” simultaneously; with practice, it is not too hard.  Also, I find perspective in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s quote:

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.

Second, I keep in mind the idea that mistakes can easily be made (by me and by others). I constantly try to be alert for mistakes, and I have internalized that into a technique that I call The Compact Approach to Strategy.

The third thing I do is related to mistake avoidance: I maintain the vision or working definition of success for myself or the endeavor at hand. Strategic thinking is not the same as creative thinking; creative thinking is concerned with cleverness and strategic thinking is concerned with strategy and success.

Fourth, I recall experiences in agile product development organizations, where they divide work into discrete chunks, and use experimentation and prototyping.  This iterative approach gives us useful information that allows them to rapidly move towards workable ideas.  They are not concerned with the perfection; they are concerned with workable ideas that serve as small wins for betterment.

Are You “Lost in the Weeds?”

I frequently am asked a question by people who know they should be strategic, but are trapped by habit into a comfort zone of technical activities. They ask, “How do I keep myself from being lost in the weeds?”

My reply is that they first should congratulate themselves, because they are recognizing they have a problem that is limiting their effectiveness. This is not unlike addiction recovery programs; the first step is to “admit that you have a problem” and understand how this problem is affecting yourself and others.  (Admittedly, the problem of “being tactical” rather than strategic may not equate to the misery of drug addiction, but it still affects your life in that you may be missing opportunities that could lead to your success.)

“Being tactical rather than strategic” is a form of procrastination.

Regardless, being “lost in the weeds” is both a habit of spending too much time in your comfort  zone (rather than your learning zone). As basic as it may be, the advice is simple: raise up your head (pay attention) and look around (at the strategic context).

Competent strategic thinkers manage their attention, and are aware of the balance between contemplation and action. As you get more comfortable with this balance, you will find that thought and action are more similar than they are different.

How does the idea that “action without thought is impulsiveness and thought without action is procrastination” apply to your goal to be a better strategic thinker?