What Gladwell is Missing: Institutional Memory

Malcolm Gladwell's recent article, ostensibly about how Davids can beat Goliaths, featured great praise for the full-court press as a method for less-skilled teams to beat more-skilled ones. He writes:

In the world of basketball, there is one story after another like this about legendary games where David used the full-court press to beat Goliath. Yet the puzzle of the press is that it has never become popular. People look at upsets like Fordham over UMass and call them flukes. Basketball sages point out that the press can be beaten by a well-coached team with adept ball handlers and astute passers—and that is true... Playing insurgent basketball did not guarantee victory. It was simply the best chance an underdog had of beating Goliath.

After his piece was rightly criticized all over the web, ESPN published a long and interesting email conversation between him and Bill Simmons that addressed the criticism. In it, Gladwell defended his column:

After my piece ran in The New Yorker, one of the most common responses I got was people saying, well, the reason more people don't use the press is that it can be beaten with a well-coached team and a good point guard. That is (A) absolutely true and (B) beside the point. The press doesn't guarantee victory. It simply represents the underdog's best chance of victory… I went to see a Lakers-Warriors game earlier this season, and it was abundantly clear after five minutes that the Warriors' chances of winning were, oh, no better than 10 percent. Why wouldn't you have a special squad of trained pressers come in for five minutes a half and press Kobe and Fisher?… Best case is that you rattle the Lakers and force a half-dozen extra turnovers that turn out to be crucial. And if you lose, so what? You were going to lose anyway.

Although lots of people have responded to this rebuttal, I haven't seen anyone mention what I consider to be an important reason that many teams have chosen not to implement full-court presses: Institutional Memory.

Let's imagine that the Warriors had in fact, put on the press, and that it had worked. The Warriors won against the vaunted Lakers! How would the team respond? They would press more. When that worked to win some more games, they would probably trade some of their players who were less well suited to the press to make room for some younger, faster, fitter players. They would win a few more games than they had been before. Everything's going good, right?

Then they hit a snag; No team has won the NBA Championship by pressing . The Warriors could optimize like crazy for the press, but they'd be training and working and trading and drafting to be, at best, a pretty good team. But no NBA team wants to be a pretty good team—they all want to win championships.

The mental exercise reveals what Gladwell has missed: the Warriors aren't playing to win that game, or even the most games that season. They're playing to try and win an NBA championship, and to do so, they need to spend years trying to build up the institutional memory of how to win games in the traditional way so that they can eventually beat every team, not just to win more games than they did playing traditionally.

All of this leads to a simple admonishment when analyzing organizations: don't expect that the organization is optimizing for what you think they're optimizing for. And when an organization seems to be acting in ways that are surprising to you, look for metrics that may be more important to them than the ones you expect.

May 31, 2009