LeBron James: A management innovator? | Opensource.com

LeBron James: A management innovator?

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LeBron James is an amazing basketball player. But is he also a management innovator? I couldn’t help but ask myself that question as I watched the news reports last week that three of the biggest professional basketball stars have chosen to play together in Miami. Early reports indicate that each of the players will take a pay cut in order to play together.

Historically in the NBA and most professional sports teams, the owner has all the power. In some cases a general manager wields the power on behalf of the owner. Over the past decade, a few coaches have unsuccessfully attempted to share power with owners. In all cases the players are highly paid to play the sport. The players are not part of the management team and are not involved in personnel decisions. The players have very little power.

So what happened last week?

The NBA experienced an organizational earthquake.

I noticed several parallels between what is happening in the NBA and what I see happening more broadly in business because of the open source way.

Leading business strategist Gary Hamel has said that open source is one of the greatest management innovations of the 21st century. In The Future of Management, Gary writes,

“The success of the open source software movement is the single most dramatic example of how an opt-in engagement model can mobilize human effort on a grand scale... It's little wonder that the success of open source has left a lot of senior executives slack-jawed. After all, it's tough for managers to understand a production process that doesn't rely on managers.”

In open source, developers opt-in to working on projects that interest them.

Last Thursday, for the first time in NBA history, three players opted-in to a project that interested them: winning an NBA title together as part of the Miami Heat.

What is particularly interesting is that the players made this decision and not the managers. This is a huge, fundamental shift for professional basketball. This is not an owner hiring a player. In this case, the players chose the owner. Or more specifically, the players chose the environment that they wanted to work in.

The generally accepted idea is that top talent goes to the highest bidder. Daniel Pink has written a lot about employee motivation, and specifically that money may not be the most powerful motivator:

“So we tend to think that people need to have big financial incentives attached to everything they do, when if fact, here you have something that doesn’t have at least a direct financial incentive for people. That they’re spending their time on and doing amazing work. Why are they doing that? They’re doing it for the sense of challenge. I think that’s a big part of it. To get better at something that matters.

I also think that the collaboration side of it is important in the sense that if you collaborate with great people, you’re more likely to learn, and so that’s going to enhance your mastery.”

Using the words of Daniel Pink, these three players have chosen to collaborate together in order to enhance their mastery. To do something that matters: win a championship. Money was not the deciding factor.

It appears that many of the same principles that have helped the open source movement become successful are now being put into practice in the NBA. In the 21st century, talented individuals will chose to work on projects that matter and that make a difference. It happens in the open source world. And now it is happening in the NBA too.

So, what is an NBA owner to do?

Perhaps innovative owners will change their business models to empower employee-owners.

What do you think? Are we seeing the first signs of radical management innovation in professional sports?



A radical innovator maybe? Pat was already a mastermind. This is surely a large change in his career, as well, but he's secure enough with his legacy to go with it. To me thats a significant achievement...someone with 40 years of experience, willing to change his ways.

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The truth is that sports executives and management have not held control over the decisions of players since the innovation of Free Agency in the 1970's. The players have always held the choice. The player have historically just exercised the economic right to maximize their financial worth for the most part. What I think took a "hit" in this instance was the concept of competition. In a way this was actually very anti-competitive and something that will actually hurt the NBA as an organization in the long run if changes are not made in the structure. Basically this is collusion on behalf of a handful of laborers or suppliers to manipulate a market much like labor unions in the US steel, US auto industry and OPEC. And we all know how those industries are perceived in the world.

The fact is that they (Lebron, Dwayne, and Chris) exercised their right to choose which they have had since the beginning of the Free Agent Era in a new manner. James and Bosh each signed a sign and trade deal that gave them $110 million over 5 years and the Heat gave up future draft picks to win now, leveraging their future for known resources today. I'm not sure that this is the Open Source way, but I for one would rather a world in which the costs of decisions are burdened by the ones that make them. I can't imagine that the Cleveland economy and all those business that are impacted by these decisions (by some estimates $45 million) will find recourse.

With choice comes responsibility and it tough to see how this was anything but a micro level decision that benefited a few at the expense of the whole. The best idea may not have won in this instance, but I guess that is yet to be seen and only time will tell.

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