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4 ways data plays a role on winning teams


In the pivot to remote work, companies adopted digital platforms and tools to help their employee groups carry on.

As a side effect of that rapid change, there’s now a “deluge of data” created about how employees collaborate and get things done, said MIT Sloan senior lecturer

“Now so many tools are enabling remote work, and because these tools are digital, they are emitting new data that could be collected and analyzed systematically to improve performance,” Shields said. “But just because you can doesn’t mean you should. In this new world of the digitized workplace, managers should give employees agency in how this information is tracked and used.”

If you’re wondering how to use this data effectively and appropriately, look no further than the football field or baseball diamond.

Sports teams “are in the business of analyzing data to improve performance,” said Shields, who teaches the MIT Sloan Executive Education course Data-Driven Teams: The Art and Science of Winning. He also teaches courses on the media, sports, and entertainment industries and previously served as the director of social media and marketing at ESPN.

“In this program we explore how high-performing teams are built, managed, and sustained over time,” he said. “We focus specifically on the four interrelated factors of winning teams, and the role that data plays in each. Our case study is sports, but the lessons are applicable in any context.”

Here's a look at those four factors and how to apply them in your organization.


Thanks to perpetually developing technology and the nature of sports statistics, there’s a lot of data available on players and their performance, which helps managers, coaches, and the players themselves obtain objective performance measures — for example, passing yards for quarterbacks or points per game for point guards.

It’s possible to do the same for employees in a corporate environment, Shields said. If you have an accurate performance measurement, then you can focus on what metrics are most important.

Understanding what metrics are most important is helpful in at least two ways: Metrics can help teams evaluate talent (Do they have the skills/abilities to achieve the desired result?). And metrics can help teams develop talent (setting a benchmark or goal to reach) as part of an employee’s training and upskilling.


When it comes to designing a winning system, use data to develop a strategy and set team-oriented key performance indicators.

“The trick with your team’s system,” Shields said, “is making sure your KPIs on both the team and individual level are aligned. If the team wins, everyone who contributed should benefit.”

For example, a soccer team with a style that emphasizes passing could set a KPI on passes per game, Shields said. Chances are, if the team executes on that system and hits its KPI, it will be in a better position to win the match.

In business, a goal might be increasing revenue by 10%. A KPI that would help put that business team in a position to win could be something like sales conversions or a particular retention rate or new customer acquisition rate.

“The company needs to figure out which metric contributes most to revenue growth,” Shields said. “If it’s getting more money out of existing customers, then a KPI around retention would likely make the most sense.”


Some sports teams pride themselves on their grit and hustle. In basketball, there are ways to measure hustle — or “hustle stats.” These statistics include chasing loose balls and deflecting or blocking shots.

Organizations can do something similar. Consider the values your company holds near and dear, Shields said, and identify ways to measure behaviors that exhibit those values.

“That’s just one measurement, it’s not the be all end all for your culture,” Shields said. “But it makes it more into something that’s measurable and tangible versus words that are just on a wall in a conference room.”


Talent, system, and culture are critical to winning teams, but “none of this works without the leader’s ability to balance both the art and the science of winning,” Shields said.

“Increasingly in the sports industry, leaders with the ability to interpret performance data and also understand the art of leading people are excelling,” Shields said.

Leaders must be able to read and understand what data is telling them about their team’s performance, but also have emotional intelligence beyond those numbers and statistics — like knowing how to motivate a team and manage conflict.

“It’s not an either/or proposition,” he said. “It's not [only] we rely on data to inform what talent we select or what system to run. It’s also upon the leader to use intuition on which levers to pull at the appropriate time.”

Read next: What sports analytics can teach business managers

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