March Madness, or How the Final Four Made Me Think About Systems Thinking

Disclaimer: I know very little about sports like basketball and baseball, and I am likely to show more about what I don’t know than what I do know. But here goes.

Recently I was watching my favorite news show (Charlie Rose, who is a big basketball fan), and the first topic was an analysis of the Final Four. Which teams had the best players, the best coaches, the best strategies, the best teamwork. And it occurred to me that basketball is really about Systems Thinking.

There are a lot of skills that are required in basketball, including the individual skills like shooting, dribbling, jumping, rebounding, and so on. There are a lot of interpersonal skills, whether offensive, like passing, or defensive, like guarding. But what really makes a team work is teamwork. Systems Thinking.

Thinking about things like, Where are the other players on my team at every given moment? Where are the players on the other team? Where are they likely to go next? Oh, and Where is the ball in relationship to all of those people? What are the possibilities if we can get the ball positioned over here instead of over there? What are the possibilities if the other team moves it this way rather than that way?

It isn’t just about “How do I get the ball?” or “What do I do once I’ve got the ball in order to get the shot?” It’s about “Where do I need to be whether I’ve got the ball or not?” and “What series of moves do we need to make together even it if means somebody else takes the shot?” and “How do we close the gap so the other team can’t take the shot?”

Systems Thinking.

Baseball is a little different, because there isn’t the constant opportunity for turning over from defense to offense and back again at any given moment. An entire team is on defense and one person on offense has the opportunity to hit the ball. The defensive players just have to be ready to catch the ball and get it to the right place to throw the runner out. (I know, I just ignored the crucial role of the pitcher in keeping the batter from hitting the ball in the first place.) This becomes increasingly complex, however, when the offensive team has runners on base. The pitcher has to anticipate who might try to steal, and the other defensive players have to be ready if the ball comes to them and choose the most important position to get the ball to in order to throw a runner out. It’s even harder when there is a series of actions that need to happen – in the right order – and this is why a triple play is so exciting.

Systems Thinking.

Do you find yourself standing in the outfield, terrified you’ll drop the fly-ball? Or even more terrified you’ll catch it and have to decide where to throw it next? Are you a player who only thinks about rushing the ball to the basket and taking the shot? Do you, as a manager, have a team that runs smoothly, passing the ball and being able to effectively assess where it needs to go next based on constantly changing scenarios? Or is your team so mired in process that they can’t respond quickly to changing conditions? Are they all individual contributors, some always taking the ball, some never even thinking about where the ball came from or where it goes once they pass it? Are they terrified if it comes to them?

A player who lacks individual competence and confidence will likely only think systemically in order to protect him or herself, whereas a player who has individual competence and confidence may not think about the rest of the system at all.

Systems Thinking. It requires a level of individual competence and confidence from each of the players, and it also requires thinking about the other parts of the system and the ability to think forward in time.

How good is your team at it?

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3 Responses to March Madness, or How the Final Four Made Me Think About Systems Thinking

  1. Square-Peg Karen March 22, 2011 at 9:01 am #

    Brilliant questions here, Susan!

    Back when I was a practicing therapist I worked mainly with individuals – not families, Family Therapy is a whole other animal. I would talk with them (Family Therapists) and totally GET what they were saying, but not know how in Hades they came up with their ideas.

    The broad view thing (the big picture) seemed like magic to me – and the Family Therapists like magicians. And now I’m thinking of you in that way.

    Your ability to do Systems Thinking amazes and delights me — I GET what you’re saying and I’m going to ponder and address some of the issues you brought up in this post — but I (can’t see the forest for the trees – lol) can barely figure out how you SEE this stuff. I bow!

  2. Susan March 22, 2011 at 8:39 pm #

    Thanks Karen! I think that, like many things, Systems Thinking is a muscle that just needs to be exercised. The more one does it, the easier it gets. Just like playing chess.


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