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Ideas Made to Matter


How storytelling helps data-driven teams succeed


In the spring of 2014, the Golden State Warriors hired Steve Kerr as their head coach. Despite having built a roster that boasted names like Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green, the basketball team hadn’t won an NBA championship in 40 years. By the end of Kerr’s first season, the Warriors had not only won the title — they’d started what would be an era of league domination.

“It’s an example of ‘Hey, let’s change the management, keep the same talent, but we’re going to adjust the system as well.’ And as a result, you get sustained winning,” said MIT Sloan senior lecturer  “If you are a basketball fan, there’s a good chance that your favorite team has been beaten by the Golden State Warriors.”

Sustained winning — not the Cinderella overnight-success stories but victories earned through the combination of management, talent, system, and culture — is at the core of the MIT Sloan Executive Education course “Data-Driven Teams: The Art and Science of Winning,” taught by Shields and MIT Sloan lecturer and sports journalist 

In a recent webinar, Shields and Springer examined two key components of winning teams and what leaders can do to develop them.

The art of motivational, authentic storytelling

Culture is at the heart of successful teams, and a foundational part of a culture is storytelling. Internal storytelling, Springer said, can be used to connect with players or employees, build cohesion, and inspire culture change. Rather than simply stating their values, effective leaders communicate them by sharing stories about their own careers, including highs and lows, setbacks, and lessons learned. Leaders should also ask team members to share their own stories. This builds team unity and motivates buy-in to the organization’s culture and values.

Consider the Dallas Mavericks and their CEO, Cynthia “Cynt” Marshall. When Marshall was hired in 2018, she inherited a basketball team being investigated for a toxic workplace culture, including a lack of female representation at its higher leadership levels.

“Cynt did two things: She first told her personal story, then she met with all of the employees on the business side of the operations at the Dallas Mavericks and she asked them for their story,” Springer said. That’s because Marshall wanted to create a culture in which every voice matters and everyone belongs. At the same time, she was making system and hiring changes to bring in more women. Less than two years later, the Mavericks’ executive leadership was 50% female and 43% people of color.

Similarly, external storytelling with a motivational component can drive interest and enthusiasm from clients, customers, and other stakeholders, Springer said. For example, Wynn Resorts has a storytelling program in which employees are encouraged to share success stories while on the job. The company in turn uses those stories to inspire other employees and communicate corporate values to a wider audience.

To meaningfully connect with audiences, storytelling must be authentic, Springer said. You must make it clear that what you’re sharing actually happened and is not just the product of a text generator. And if you’re using someone else’s personal story as an example, make sure they’ve given permission for their story to be told, she advised.

Storytelling “can do incredible things in terms of persuasion and getting buy-in,” Springer said. “But with that superpower, you have to use it wisely, and that’s the responsibility of leaders and the responsibility of storytellers.”

The science of quantitative and qualitative data

If storytelling is the art of a winning team, data is the science. While all teams have data, Shields said what sets winning teams apart are those that:

  • Get data-driven buy-in from all levels of an organization.
  • Use quantitative and qualitative information to improve.
  • Understand the problems that need to be solved and intuit data’s role in solving them.

“When we’re thinking about organizational change and becoming more data-informed in our decision-making, it’s got to come from the top, the bottom, and the middle, because for many organizations, this is a completely new way of working,” Shields said.

Leaders need to ensure that the data their organization and teams already have is understood and analyzed, he added, and they should be prepared to invest capital to ethically and responsibly capture additional data.

In the sports world, this could be something like putting sensors into players’ uniforms and protective padding to track their movements and interactions on a field of play, or having them use wearable monitors to collect biometric information such as heart rate and oxygen levels. Similarly, companies today have more metrics available, such as how customers and employees interact and how employees communicate with one another and get things done via digital tools.

As that information is collected, leaders should take advantage of quantitative and qualitative data, as well as intuition and experience, to improve their teams’ performance. Shields said that one of the challenges of data-driven decision-making is that it’s often viewed as an either/or scenario.

“I think a much more productive and realistic way to approach decision-making about your team is both/and,” Shields said. “Both — we use quantitative data, what we have available — and any qualitative assessments of our team performance. Some of the best decision makers in sports talk openly about being able to balance both types of information to arrive at the best decision.”

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Consider an NFL coach facing a fourth-down decision: whether to go for a first down or kick a field goal. The data usually suggests going for it, Shields said, because it would increase the probability of winning. But coaches also must factor in the context of the situation, which cannot easily be quantified. In business, executives may have years of experience in successful decision-making, but often, when facing new business challenges — especially in a dynamic marketplace — they will be better served by considering both their instincts and new insights from data analytics.

Shields also said that there’s value to assigning key performance indicators not just to a team’s progress but to its process. In business, this could refer to a measure of execution and efficiency as well as how well the team members communicate and collaborate. “Running crisp routes in football, taking sound swings in golf, and moving the ball in basketball are all examples of good process in sports,” Shields said.

To help promote and enable effective team processes, team leaders can set process KPIs that indicate whether the team is progressing (or regressing) toward their desired outcome. But process KPIs don’t mean anything in a vacuum; they need to be clearly linked to the outcome. This will help the team establish the right habits and behaviors that impact winning.

“You will hear some of the best coaches say, ‘Yeah, there were so many things that were outside of our control, [but] I’m really pleased with how we played, and more often than not, if we play the way that we played, we’re going to get that win going forward,’” Shields said.

For more info Meredith Somers News Writer (617) 715-4216