LeBron James is Building a Winning Team by Letting Them Lose – When Should We Do the Same?


After being at the Lean Startup Conference the last two years (giving this talk in 2012 and speaking last year on Kaizen), I'm not there this year, unfortunately. I'm also not at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement forum (why are there often two great events the same week?). I'm working with a hospital client this week, which is a lot of fun too.

It's a bit of a mantra in the Lean Startup movement to “fail fast and fail often.” Some complain that failure can be a bit of a fetish, but the idea is to make small mistakes early and learn from them… a continuous improvement approach to startups. Instead of working for years to build software or a company in secrecy and then failing after a major launch, it's better to get to market quickly with a “minimum viable product” and “fail” (or stumble) when you're small, unknown, and can make adjustments without it being hugely expensive and/or embarrassing.

Far from being a startup, Toyota embraces the idea of small failures as a way of learning and preventing major failures:

“Toyota Motor Corporation exemplifies this very different attitude toward the small failures that occur every day in most companies. Toyota views problems as opportunities to learn and improve. Thus, it seeks out problems, rather than sweeping them under the rug.”

As I've written about before, I'm a San Antonio Spurs fan. I was happy when they beat LeBron James and the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals. I'm not a huge LeBron James fan, but I respect him and he's a winner. I was reading the other day about his transition back to the Cleveland Cavaliers and how they are learning to win as a team.

The goal is a big one – winning the NBA Finals. A team has to win enough games to make the playoffs, but they don't need to win every single game. Some games can be viewed as “learning opportunities,” especially early in an 82-game regular season.

LeBron is, of course, a leader and the main guy on the Cavs. He has some stars around him, like Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, along with a number of role players. This article caught my eye:

LeBron James Is Letting His Teammates Fail On Purpose, And It's Getting Messy

Apparently, LeBron has teammates who have been used to playing selfishly and jacking up a lot of shots. He doesn't think that's a recipe for success (nor does LeBron likely think the recipe includes him taking 30 shots a game… they need to play like a team… like the Spurs, perhaps).

From the article (citing an ESPN piece about LeBron's “new leadership style):

This is a conscious decision on how he plans to operate in a passive-aggressive mission to yank some teammates toward his way of thinking. Let some of them fail at their way so they will be open to new ideas, is what it looks and sounds like.

LeBron could try to tell them what to do… but might face resistance (even though he's an NBA champion and future hall of famer). He's allowing them to fail so they can learn from their mistakes when the cost is pretty minimal.

The second time around, his plan appears to be this: Let Waiters and Irving see what happens if all they try to do is score. When that backfires, don't be a safety net. Once they realize that they have to play within the system and buy in on defense, start taking a more active role within the offense.

He's basically pushing the baby birds out of the nest here and watching them flap around on the ground below.

The strategy may have worked, as the Cavaliers now have an eight-game winning streak. Maybe they have things figured out after stumbling out of the gate at the start of the season? They started the season with five wins and seven losses… now their record is 13-7.

The Cavaliers aren't a startup… but they make me think about how we try to teach new habits and practices, like Lean and Kaizen, in hospitals and other settings.

As a consultant and coach, how do you find the balance between telling people what to do and letting them try things, fail (in small ways), and learn from their failures?

I think you need to find the balance… do some teaching and telling, but you also need to let people try to flap around and fly. They are going to make mistakes and that's often OK.

When I coach leaders on behaviors and actions that promote a culture of continuous improvement, I do a little bit of teaching and try to model some Kaizen-y behaviors, then I let them try. I let them try to explain Kaizen to their employees. They can try to solicit ideas and collaborate with people in a Kaizen style. There might be some small mistakes (they might be awkward in how they describe Kaizen or they might forget some key point)… but the harm caused is minimal.

I can coach and correct the leader later or I can chime in and help or clarify. It's generally better for the hospital leader to be the one explaining Kaizen to staff, even if they don't do it perfectly, than it would be for me to explain Kaizen as an outsider. The leader owns the culture, not me.

When leaders are coaching individual employees who ideas for improvement, that idea might not be something the manager would have come up with. The manager might not think the idea would work.

When should a leader speak up and say “don't try that?” I'd argue it should be pretty rare. A manager has an obligation, of course, to speak up if an employee wants to try something that would be unsafe or would violate a law or regulation. The manager should say “no” and educate the employee… then work together to find something else to try. It wouldn't be moral or ethical to let somebody learn by failing if the failure would hurt or kill somebody. But, most Kaizens aren't like that at all.

Leaders should let people try their ideas… see if it works. Make sure the risk and cost of failure is low. The employees might surprise you (the idea works after all) or they'll “fail” – which really means learn and try something else.

Telling people what to do might seem faster or better… and it might be in the short term. But, maybe it shortcuts learning and long-term success?

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


    • Kobe said this in the news the other day (after the Lakers beat my Spurs here in San Antonio):

      “Look, we can all criticize my style of leadership all day long,” Bryant said. “You can sit there, and it’s uncomfortable, it’s whatever, but I’ve been doing that since high school. We play this game to win championships, and I have five of them.

      “It’s worked pretty well throughout my career.”


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