People Matters

The Unknown Heroes of Great Teams

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The legend of Shane Battier

Do you know Shane Battier?

Chances are that you haven’t. Unless you are a basketball nerd.

Shane Battier played 13 seasons in the NBA and averaged 8 points per game. Nothing remarkable about that. His former GM, Daryl Morey described him as a marginal NBA athlete at best. If you looked at all the obvious measures of evaluating a player, Shane Battier would fare poorly on all of them. You would wonder how he survived for 13 years in the NBA.

Actually, there is one measure on which he does slightly better though. Infact, he does as well as anyone to have played the game.

Winning game and titles.

Shane Battier is a lifelong winner.

He won three consecutive state championships in high school, one national championship at Duke in college, and then won two NBA championships with the Miami Heat.

He’s not a lucky guy who just happened to be on great teams.

In 2012, the two best players in the game, LeBron James and Kevin Durant, were both fighting to get Battier on their team. James succeeded and was rewarded with two titles.

So what’s so special about Shane Battier?

Shane Battier is, what they call a Glue Guy in the NBA. He is possibly one of the greatest Glue Guys ever.

The Glue Guy

So what’s a Glue Guy exactly?

A Glue Guy is literally like glue. He or she is the adhesive who holds everyone on the team together and makes the whole greater than the sum of the parts.

These guys aren’t concerned at all about individual accolades — like scoring points or gathering rebounds in basketball. Instead, they are committed to doing whatever it takes to make sure their team wins. They will do all the thankless jobs which no one wants to do and which don’t find their way into the stats sheet. Their attitude and actions lift the team and create a positive energy. Their physical ability and skills might be below average but they tend to have high IQ and EQ.

Their high credibility allows them to push and cajole team mates to do better. They end up making everyone look good and have a huge impact on team chemistry and performance.

The stats make them look ordinary but every coach and team mate recognises the value of a Glue Guy and wants to have one on their team, and every player wants to play with one.

This is an excerpt about Shane Battier from a NY Times article titled “The No Stats All Star”

Battier’s game is a weird combination of obvious weaknesses and nearly invisible strengths. When he is on the court, his teammates get better, often a lot better, and his opponents get worse — often a lot worse. He may not grab huge numbers of rebounds, but he has an uncanny ability to improve his teammates’ rebounding. He doesn’t shoot much, but when he does, he takes only the most efficient shots. He also has a knack for getting the ball to teammates who are in a position to do the same, and he commits few turnovers. On defence, although he routinely guards the NBA’s most prolific scorers, he significantly reduces their shooting percentages. At the same time he somehow improves the defensive efficiency of his teammates — probably, Morey surmises, by helping them out in all sorts of subtle ways. “I call him Lego,” Morey says. “When he’s on the court, all the pieces start to fit together. And everything that leads to winning that you can get to through intellect instead of innate ability, Shane excels in. I’ll bet he’s in the hundredth percentile of every category.”

Glue Guys are clearly an indispensable part of winning teams.

We know that Glue Guys make sports teams better. But is there an equivalent of the Glue Guy at the workplace? Can these people make organisations better ?

Let’s find out

Bell Labs and Harry Nyquist

Before Silicon Valley came into being, Bell Labs was the leading hub of invention and innovation in the world. Starting from 1925 upto the 1970’s, the scientists and engineers at Bell Labs had a hand in most of the important technological inventions of that age. Their list of achievements includes the transistor, data networking, solar cells, lasers, communication satellites, binary computing and cellular communication.

Sometime during this time, the people who ran Bell Labs became interested in understanding their own success. They wanted to know which scientists were generating the most no. of patents for their inventions and what they had in common.

A detailed study threw up a Top 10 list. They then analysed these guys further to understand what was common to all of them. In the end they found the most interesting connection — all these scientists were in the habit of regularly having lunch in the Bell Labs cafeteria with a Swedish engineer called Harry Nyquist.

Harry Nyquist was a good engineer but in a place full of geniuses, he was remarkably ordinary. His stat sheet of scientific achievements was very similar to that of the Glue Guy in basketball — mediocre at best.

But Harry Nyquist had other qualities which made him the common link between all the brilliant scientists. He had warmth and curiosity. His warmth drew people to him and he chatted with them about the work they were doing. His curiosity made him ask lots of questions and offer ideas about their work.

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How Ideas Grow through Cross Pollination

It is now a well known fact that a diverse melting pot is the most fertile place for innovation. From Florence in the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution to the modern creative hubs like Google, when lots of diverse intelligent people interact in one place, their ideas cross pollinate and create magic (for more on this, read Range and Where Ideas Come and the History of Innovation).

Harry Nyquist was getting exposed to a wide spectrum of fascinating ideas and he was cross pollinating them across Bell Labs. Whoever was regularly hanging out with him was getting a major dose of cognitive diversity, which in turn was increasing their scientific productivity.

The aforementioned story is from Daniel Coyle’s book, The Culture Code. As Coyle writes in his book, everywhere he studied successful creative teams, he came across people who were exactly like Harry Nyquist. In the end, he started calling them Nyquists.

The Nyquist Traits

- They had warmth and curiosity.

- They listened well and easily engaged people in conversation.

- With their width of ideas and knowledge, they asked interesting questions ignited sparks of creativity in their listeners.

- Just like the Glue Guys, the Nyquists were generally ignored by the outside world but adored by their fellow team members and their managers.

- They made everyone around them better. They were a critical ingredient of successful teams.

This example shows that Glue Guys can make a big impact at the workplace also. It’s clear that all successful teams need Glue Guys and Nyquists. They are the straws that stir the drink. The secret sauce of winning teams.

Adding the Secret Sauce to your team

It’s obvious now that having people like Shane Battier and Harry Nyquist can do wonders for your team.

It’s also clear that their impact is not easily discernible ( except by the people who work with them) and they can easily be ignored and dismissed as average performers.

So what can organizations and teams do to add this magic ingredient to their teams? How do they find and populate their teams with Glue Guys and Nyquists? How do they encourage such behaviour by recognizing and rewarding it?

Important Disclaimer : I am not a qualified expert on this subject. Whatever little understanding I have comes from a combination of reading and a little bit of doing.

The first step is acknowledging that you need such people.

Then you go look for them. This needs research and analysis. Just like the Bell Labs people. Look at data to identify the common thread in successful teams and the missing piece in unsuccessful ones. The NBA teams use advanced stats like plus minus to figure this out. Then conduct surveys. Ask people to form their dream teams or give peer feedback. The wisdom of crowds is very effective in identifying the Glue Guys and Nyquists. The data analysis and survey will throw up a first set of people.

Now study them. Understand how they impact their teammates and what makes them effective. Then figure what innate traits are associated with these behaviours.

Like gender and race diversity, the organization needs to proactively build its Glue Guy or Nyquist diversity by hiring enough people with these traits. The last part is recognition. Any company can hire talented people with great skills. Very few will end up having Glue Guys and Nyquists. Such people are rare. Therefore they need to be celebrated. And rewarded.

If you have someone like that in your team, you are incredibly lucky. Even superstar athletes and genius scientists fight for such people.


The NY Times

Culture Code by Daniel Coyle

Range by David Epstein

How Innovation Works by Matt Ridley

Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson

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CoFounder at CaratLane

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