What We Can Learn About Teamwork and Culture from the San Antonio Spurs


After living in San Antonio for almost four years, my wife and I will finally be settled into the DFW area by the end of March. There's a lot we will miss about San Antonio and that includes the San Antonio Spurs. Even if you're not into the NBA, it's basically a civic obligation to cheer for the Spurs and to attend a game here and there. It's a very similar community feeling like they have about the Green Bay Packers up in that part of Wisconsin.

Below is a picture I took at a recent game. The Spurs were beating the Houston Rockets by 30 points and the starters were mostly out of the game. In the photo below, you see #30, David West, who chose to sign with the Spurs as a free agent for LESS MONEY because he wanted to be on a winning team (he “sought meaning, not money” as the NY Times put it).


You also see #14 Danny Green, a solid starter, and #40 Boban Marjanovic, who is 7 foot 3 inches tall and was somehow found in Serbia by the Spurs and their management.

During pre-game warmups, Boban was smiling and enjoying himself like nobody I've seen in a long time. He's probably still a bit shocked that he's playing in the NBA. He's not just talented – everybody says he has a great attitude and work ethic.

The Spurs, with their championships and their 50-win seasons are the model of consistency and teamwork. I grew up a Detroit Pistons fan and, over 25 years, that team has gone from winning championships to being terrible to winning another championship and then being horrible again. The Spurs have 16 seasons (going on 17) in a row where they've won 50 games.

Yes, they've had great players, but there's a culture of teamwork and unselfishness. The Spurs (after learning their lesson with Dennis Rodman) have learned to draft and sign players who FIT into their culture and system.

Here's a recent interview with head coach Gregg Popovich:

Gregg Popovich broke down what he looks for in players, and it was an inspiring life lesson

“For us, it's easy. We're looking for character, but what the hell does that mean? We're looking for people — and I've said it many times — [who] have gotten over themselves, and you can tell that pretty quickly. You can talk to somebody for four or five minutes, and you can tell if it's about them, or if they understand that they're just a piece of the puzzle. So we look for that. A sense of humor is a huge thing with us. You've got to be able to laugh. You've got to be able to take a dig, give a dig — that sort of thing.”

You can get a sense of the Spurs' sense of humor in these hilarious local TV ads for the HEB grocery stores, like this:

“Getting over yourself” can be a a great thing to look for when interviewing and hiring — is it all about that person or is it about the people they are helping? Ask them to talk about projects… is it about what HE or SHE did or is it about what others accomplished under their coaching or leadership? Are they willing to be a part of a system (but, in the workplace, also help change and improve that system)?

It's said that getting hired into Toyota, in any job, is more competitive than admission to Harvard. I've been told that it's because they aren't hiring just for skills and abilities, but for attitude.

How many hospitals have talked about getting “any warm body” to fill an open position? I'd rather see organizations hiring for attitude, culture, and fit. With the “any warm body” talk, is it any wonder that some organizations struggle to hire people?

Back to Coach Pop:

“And [you have to] feel comfortable in your own skin that you don't have all the answers. [We want] people who are participatory. The guys in the film room can tell me what they think of how we played last night if they want to. [Former Assistant GM] Sean Marks would sit in on our coaches' meetings when we're arguing about how to play the pick-and-roll or who we're going to play or who we're going to sit.”

This reminds me of Lean thinking… relying less on KNOWING the answer and valuing, instead, the process of FINDING answers through structured experiments.

In workplaces, we can't just demand that people participate in improvement or just lecture them about needing to speak up. Leadership sets the tone and creates the environment where people can speak up, point out problems, and disagree. The Spurs seem to get that.

Pop also said:

“We need people who can handle information and not take it personally because in most of these organizations, there's a big divide. All of the sudden, the wall goes up between management and coaching and everybody is ready to blame back and forth and that's the rule rather than the exception. It just happens. But that's about people. It's about finding people who have all of those qualities. So, we do our best to look for that and when somebody comes, they figure it out pretty quick.”

There could be many walls – between players and coaches, between coaches and management, between management and the owners. How many dysfunctional NBA teams struggle to win even though they have talented players? How many teams fire the head coach every year instead of fixing their “system?” This is also a problem in the NFL (see the Cleveland Browns or Detroit Lions as examples of dysfunctional ownership and management).

Hear Mark read this post (subscribe to the podcast):

Organizations need to find people with the right qualities. I was thrilled when one of my healthcare clients built upon their burgeoning “culture of continuous improvement” by starting to put expectations about participating in Kaizen into job descriptions. They asked people about their previous improvement efforts during job interviews. They were a great workplace and they were going to be better by hiring for attitude and fit, not just skills.

I wish more organizations in healthcare understood this. I'm glad that so few NBA teams understand it, because it makes it easier for the Spurs to compete.

But, I want the Spurs to win another championship. In healthcare, I want every organization to “win” and to be as great as they can be. Their employees and their patients deserve it. It's possible… but too many leaders and organizations are stuck in their old ways, even when better models are out there.

What do you think?

What do you think? Please scroll down (or click) to post a comment. Or please share the post with your thoughts on LinkedIn – and follow me or connect with me there.

Did you like this post? Make sure you don't miss a post or podcast — Subscribe to get notified about posts via email daily or weekly.

Check out my latest book, The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation:

Get New Posts Sent To You

Select list(s):
Previous articlePodcast #242 – Staff & Leaders Talk About the Culture of Continuous Improvement at Franciscan St. Francis
Next articleUnlocking the Power of Coaching: Insights from Michael Bungay Stanier – Lean Blog Podcast #243
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.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.