Why Sports Is a Great Proving Ground for Management Ideas

In nine months of cohosting and producing a sports analytics podcast, I’ve gained a fresh perspective on what makes organizations tick.

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In sports, as in life, management matters. In fact, because of its focus on measurable outcomes and its demand for in-the-moment decision-making, sports brings many of the most critical issues in management into high relief. Sports provides a unique perspective on leadership, performance management, strategy, innovation, and, perhaps most of all, managing with data.

Having spent the past nine months cohosting (with MIT Sloan senior lecturer Ben Shields) MIT Sloan Management Review’s sports analytics podcast, Counterpoints, I’ve discovered firsthand just how much the issues that drive success on the field parallel those that drive success in business. If you haven’t had a chance to listen to the podcast or have assumed that it had no relevance to your life as a leader, I invite you to give it a try. You might be surprised by what you learn.

Here are five essential management practices illustrated through the lens of sports analytics and successful industry leaders, with links to the full episodes to learn more.

Leadership

When we think of pioneering leaders in business — from Intel’s Andy Grove, who helped shape the drive for growth in Silicon Valley, to Meg Whitman, who helmed eBay through phenomenal growth in the turbulent dot-com era — it’s not difficult to name some of the people who have transformed organizations and forever changed the practice of management. The same can be said in sports. Mike Krzyzewski at Duke. The late Pat Summitt with the University of Tennessee Lady Vols. Gregg Popovich with the San Antonio Spurs.

As in business, a great leader in sports can help unlock a team’s greatness and play a crucial role in its success. In the episode “How Much Do Coaches Actually Matter?” we look at the question of whether coaches are always an X factor. The episode looks at recent dominant success stories — such as the Golden State Warriors’ string of championships in the NBA under coach Steve Kerr and the Patriots’ dynasty in the NFL with coach Bill Belichick — with guest research from experts at the University of Chicago, to answer the question of the day: How much do coaches really matter?

Performance Management

We rarely have the perfect context to make decisions about how to optimize performance. For example, we’re often tempted to put our best people on our most pressing issues or our biggest opportunities.

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