A Winning Season vs. A Championship Season

"In the end it all comes down to talent. You can talk all you want about intangibles; I just don't know what that means. Talent makes winners, not intangibles. Can nice guys win? Sure, nice guys can win -- if they're nice guys with a lot of talent. Nice guys with a little talent finish fourth and nice guys with no talent finish last."

- Sandy Koufax

Those who know me know that it is my contention that average people in a great system will outperform great people in an average system. I’m being a little clever here, so lest I get caught at it, let’s pursue this point. When a Hall of Fame pitcher makes an argument for a different point of view, it deserves respectful consideration.

This issue came to mind with this week’s NCAA Men’s Basketball championship game of Butler vs. UConn. Butler’s commitment, team work, and hard work took them to their second consecutive final, but it wasn’t enough to overcome UConn’s talent surplus. So is it simply a matter of system vs. talent?

Here’s another data point: the Oakland A’s consistently outperform teams with much higher payrolls, presumably an indicator of more talented players. But how many World Series has Oakland won since the advent of Billyball, described so wonderfully in Michael Lewis’ Moneyball? Their system is sufficient to produce winners… but not champions.

Back to my being clever (as the Brits would say… not in a good way): my point about a great system outperforming great people has a few other facets. To me, the average system is no system at all, usually relying exclusively on heroics. I’ll take all the heroes I can, but I can’t plan on the heroes showing up always and exactly when needed. And something I don’t say often enough… hence this post… is that the best results (i.e., championships) are achieved by great people in a great system. A great system adapts to leverage the assets available to it. UConn played the same players but adapted in the second half by learning from experiences in the first 20 minutes and making it a rout.

The takeaway from this consideration is that, as Jim Collins first pointed out, don’t view it as an either/or tradeoff. The best results are the product of a great system and great people. The best system develops and enables the talents of the people within it. And it creates the conditions of success, whether success is defined by a winning season or a championship, by ensuring that the talent is available to fulfill the commitment.

See the system as serving and improving the people, and not people as cogs in the system.