What LeBron James Knows About Analytics that You Should Too
The most useful question I've learned to ask people about analytics is, "What do you plan to do with them?" By far the most interesting answer I've gotten comes from basketball superstar LeBron James: Hire Hakeem Olajuwon.
Until his championship 2011-2012 season, NBA cognoscenti viewed James as a phenomenally gifted loser. He could do everything but win when it mattered most. No one doubted his desire or ability, but they demonstrably weren't enough. You don't have to care about sports to realize that exceptional talent, dedication, discipline, teamwork, and hard work assure neither improvement nor victory. You also need self-awareness and smarts.
What do you need to know and emulate about LeBron James' journey to championship level?
No, you can't hire Hakeem Olajuwon. But you can look at "The Evolution of King James."
Kirk Goldsberry brilliantly describes the open secret to James' success: Nothing makes serious competitors more open to analytics than losing. A basketball genius frustrated with his professional failings decided he wasn't as good or as smart as he needed to be. James took a good hard look at the analytics (which Goldsberry brilliantly and visually illustrates) and an even better and harder look at himself. Then he hired retired NBA legend Olajuwon — the only player in NBA history to win the MVP, Finals MVP, and Defensive Player of the Year awards in the same season — to help remedy the analytically undeniable flaws and shortcomings of his game. He explicitly linked analytics to his personal/professional transformation.
"I wanted to get better," James said of his decision to work with Olajuwon. "I wanted to improve and I sought out someone who I thought was one of the greatest low-post players to ever play this game. I was grateful and happy that he welcomed me with open arms; I was able to go down to Houston for four and a half days; I worked out twice a day; he taught me a lot about the low post and being able to gain an advantage on your opponent. I used that the rest of the off-season, when I went back to my hometown. Every day in the gym I worked on one thing or I worked on two things and tried to improve each and every day."
And there's more to the story. The workouts were scheduled to begin each day at 9 a.m. While Olajuwon did show up regularly on time, James always was already there, sometimes having arrived by 8:20.
"He would be there stretched and ready to go," Olajuwon said. "That says a lot about him and his determination. I was impressed that he couldn't wait to get started."
"I went there to put in work," James said. "That's what it's all about. I didn't want to do anything else but to get better."
Not incidentally, James brought his own videographer to record the sessions for later study and review. The Olajuwon sessions were not just "classes" or "workshops" or "training sessions" — they were the continuation of a transformation process rooted in the analytics. The true test of analytics isn't just on how good they are but in how committed you are to using them to improve. Of course, James didn't just make a commitment; he got one from Olajuwon. Those commitments unambiguously paid off last year.
The results thus far speak for themselves this year, as well. Self-improvement in teams requires teams.
Most people reading Harvard Business Review aren't as talented in their field as James is in his. But how many of us have committed to measurable self-improvement based on analytic insight? How many of us have hired the right coach for the right reason?
Many readers were irritated by an earlier post describing how predictive analytics would increasingly determine who companies would hire, fire, and promote. Data-driven decision-making about people and their potential seem to be the digital destiny of human capital management. But this argument leaves out a crucial variable.
The surest way to disrupt the quantitative tyranny of predictive analytics is demonstrable self-improvement. Individuals and organizations alike have to move away from the notion of analytics as the key to insight and towards the belief that they're the GPS of transformation. Self-improvement, not self-knowledge, is the goal.
Have you had an analytic epiphany? Good. Now ask yourself: Who is your Hakeem Olajuwon?