We Win as a Team: How Organizational Routines Can Make or Break Collective Performance

June 7, 2010 / General /

By Ryan W. Quinn

Boston Celtics vs LA Lakers Game 2 2008 NBA Finals by Adam Pieniazek.

Taken by Adam Pianiezik, found at Flickr's Creative Commons

I am a Boston Celtics Fan. If you follow professional basketball, that sentence is enough for you to know how emotional my past month has been. The Celtics were not supposed to win more than one series in the National Basketball Association’s Playoffs. They were “too old,” “too slow,” and “too lethargic,” particularly if they were going to have to play against four of the greatest players in the NBA today: Miami’s Dwyane Wade, Cleveland’s LeBron James, Orlando’s Dwight Howard, and Los Angeles’ Kobe Bryant. The Celtics are now tied with the Los Angeles Lakers, 1-1, in the Finals. How did they do this? And what can we learn from them that is relevant to leading? It turns out that there is quite a bit we can learn.

The Problem with Simple Answers

Over the past month-and-a-half, dozens, if not hundreds, of experts have expressed their opinions about how the Celtics could possibly be winning. I have found most of the answers to these questions to be disappointing. They are disappointing to me because they are simplistic. The worst answers focus on a single explanation, such as “They finally got healthy,” or “They decided to ‘turn it on’ in the Playoffs.” Slightly better are the answers that come in the form of lists: health, urgency, role players stepping up, humility, and so forth.

Of the many lists people write, the worst is the list that authors write before a series in which they compare each player at each position on one team against the player who plays the same position on the other team. This is where the loss of nuance in simple answers misses the most important difference: Teamwork. Teamwork that makes the individuals more than the sum of the parts.


Before I write anything else, I want to make it clear that the simple answers that people write are important. But they are insufficient. The Celtics certainly could not have won if they hadn’t been healthy and if they did not treat the situation more urgently. But those individual factors were not enough.

After the Celtics shocked the world by beating LeBron James and his top-ranked Cleveland Cavaliers, Doc Rivers, the coach of the Celtics, offered the following description of what he talked to his team about:

We got good rhythm as the series went on,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “All we talked about was, individually, we’re not going to beat them. We can’t. But teamwise, if we’re together and on the same page — then we had a chance. And I thought, overall, we stayed in that. And that is why we won the series. [1]

What does it mean to win as a team and to be “on the same page?” To answer, what Doc said about why his team played so poorly in the second half of their season (I read this on the internet, and now I can’t find the citation, so we’ll have to rely on my memory. If anyone who reads this knows where the actual quote is, please let me know.): Before most of his starting five players were injured, players on the team were content with the roles they were playing and everyone played their part well. When players got injured, though, other players had to play new roles. Then, when the original players were healthy again, and returned to their original roles, the players who had been playing in expanded roles had trouble moving back into their previous roles.

Organizational Routines

When we read Doc’s comments about switching roles, it seems like the problem is pride: people like bigger roles and do not like giving them up. And there is probably truth in this. But there is also evidence to suggest that there is more to Doc’s answer than just pride. Another part of the answer has to do with organizational routines.

Organizational routines are “repetitive, recognizable patterns of interdependent actions, carried out by multiple actors” [2]. In basketball, these routines take the form of offensive “plays” and defensive “schemes.” The Celtics’ defensive schemes are particularly interesting in this regard. Unlike many teams, where individual players “cover” other individual players, the Celtics play a team defense. This defense involves individual players covering other individual players, but also involves rotating who they cover under particular circumstances so that the whole team covers the whole opposing team. These schemes can be exceedingly complex, leading some players, who have been good players on other teams, unable to play as much when they play on the Celtics because of their inability to keep up with the defensive schemes.

Last year, in the 2008-2009 basketball season, the Celtics brought in a player named Miki Moore halfway through the year to play on their team. At one point (in another article I’m trying to find) Miki described his struggle with defensive rotations. He had spent most of his career learning how to play single-coverage defense. It was hard for him to let the player that he was supposed to be covering go, and trust that someone else would cover that player, especially in the middle of the season.

Moore’s trust, I would argue, did not fail him because he believed his teammates were incapable, or because he thought his teammates wanted to make him look bad (the two most commonly-studied dimensions of trust). His trust failed him because he had spent his entire NBA career learning a set of defensive schemes that focused on individual coverage. As Michael Cohen and Paul Bacdayan [3] found, the repetitive and recognizable parts of organizational routines are stored in humans’ procedural memories.

Procedural Memory

Procedural memory is memory for how things are done that is relatively automatic (we do it without consciously thinking about it) and inarticulate (we often cannot even explain how we are doing it). In organizational routines (as opposed to individual routines), our automatic ways of doing things are interrelated with the automatic ways that other people do things. Thus, if Kevin Garnett sees Paul Pierce shy to the right in the way he covers LeBron James, then Garnett, perhaps without thinking about it consciously, may step left so that he can prevent Lebron from driving to the basket if he needs to, and Pierce also adjusts automatically, perhaps shying toward the player Garnett was covering, executing the defensive scheme (i.e., organizational routine) efficiently as a result.

If Miki Moore has only ever played single-coverage defense, then it could be exceedingly hard for him to change his automatic responses in the same way that Kevin Garnett does when he plays team defense. He has to “re-wire” his brain in order to do it. And in fact, because it is an organizational, rather than an individual, routine, he and the other players would all have to re-wire their procedural memories together to adjust their routines to the unique automatic procedures that Moore brings to the game.

Managers and employees have similar adjustments to make in both the formal and informal routines of their organizations. For example, I once worked with the manager of a mid-sized organization who said that when a member of his management team left to take another position, it took six months after putting a new person on his team before his team became a “team” again. This is because the entire team has to re-wire their procedural memories to create new, interlocked routines.

Organizational routines stored in the procedural memories of different people enable them to acts a teams, efficiently, fluidly, and expertly–as long as they are using those routines in appropriate situations and stay mindful to the unique circumstances of a given situation. When application is inappropriate or is not mindful, organizational routines can be a liability [2], but when people use them mindfully in the appropriate situations, it is the interlocking of automatic organizational routines that make a group of people into a true team.

Outside of Basketball

Teamwork is not limited to sports. Teams permeate every kind of organization in our modern world. And teamwork (the mindful and appropriate execution of organizational routines) is necessary even when no formal teams are involved. But to apply them appropriately and mindfully, managers must

  • pay as much attention to what happens between the people you work with as you do to the work that individuals do,
  • practice working together to develop organizational routines, and
  • talk about your organizational routines so that you can refine them mindfully and enact them in appropriate situations [4].

I once had a conversation with Michael Cohen—one of the two authors of the procedural memory study—when I was a doctoral student at the University of Michigan. He said to me, “If you compare person-for-person, Harvard is a smarter university than Michigan. But if you are allowed to include what happens between individuals and between units, then Michigan is a smarter institution than Harvard.”

I have been at enough different universities now to see what Michael was saying: there is untold knowledge and opportunity that exists at Michigan in the routines and relationships. I have also seen a few companies take advantage of these kinds of routines and relationships. Most companies squander them, however, because their accounting and finance practices only account for human beings as costs and the managers have no way to account for the value of what happens between individuals.


The Celtics are now playing the Lakers in the NBA Finals. In every previous round, their teamwork has beaten one of the best players in the world, who was, individually, better than any single player on the Celtics: Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, and Dwight Howard. The Lakers also have one of the best players in the world in Kobe Bryant. The lesson of the previous rounds, though, is that whichever team wins this series, will win it as a team.



[1] This quote came from a press conference Doc Rivers gave. It was quoted in many places. My particular reference comes from http://sports.espn.go.com/boston/nba/columns/story?columnist=may_peter&id=5187822.

[2] Page 95 of Feldman, M. S. & Pentland, B. T. (2003) Reconceptualizing Organizational Routines as a Source of Flexibility and Change. Administrative Science Quarterly, 48: 94-118.

[3] Cohen, M. D. & Bacdayan, P. (1994). Organizational Routines are Stored as Procedural Memory: Evidence from a Laboratory Study. Organization Science, 5: 554-568.

[4] Edmondson, A. C., R. M. Bohmer, & G. P. Pisano (2001). Disrupted Routines: Team Learning and New Technology Implementation in Hospitals. Administrative Science Quarterly, 46(4): 685-716.