NBA: The 3 Key Factors to Effective Strategic Planning in the Offseason
The 2022-23 NBA regular season and Play-In Tournament has come to a close. Over the next few months, every single team - including the eventual NBA Champion - will be sitting on the sidelines that is the offseason looking ahead and asking themselves: Where do we go from here?
Similarly, fresh off the optimism, negativity, or ambivalence of the last 12 months, Owners are inevitably asking themselves: 1) What is my GM’s plan to success, and 2) how is my GM delivering against that plan?
Antithesis to long-term Strategic Planning, teams understandably live in a deadline-to-deadline mentality - whether that be the Trade Deadline, Draft, or Free Agency. One thing for certain is that the clock is always counting down to deliver results.
The more accurate framing of the challenge for the GM role is actually: What is your plan to deliver results within the finite number of Deadlines remaining at your disposal? This should prompt any Owner and GM to take a step back and put together a robust Strategic Plan.
From our work with global sports organizations, we have identified the 3 factors that are critical to effective Strategic Planning.
Factor 1: Timing
Allocating periods through the calendar year to create, review, and refine the team’s strategic plan.
One of the biggest challenges for GMs and front offices is finding the time to sit down and chart out a long-term plan, let alone finding the most appropriate time in the jam-packed playing schedule and deadline-filled calendar year.
We empathize with GMs in this search for time.
During the season, there is always another game to prepare for. There is another Trade Deadline to prepare for. There is always another fire to put out.
During the offseason, there is the Draft. There is Free Agency. There is vacation. Then before you know it, it is time for Training Camp.
Despite these persistent operational challenges, the GM is ultimately responsible for planning and delivering against a multi-year timeline, not on a deadline-to-deadline basis. Therefore, the mindset should not be in finding the best time to plan, rather in finding the least disruptive time to plan.
That time is in the offseason, after the Draft and before the start of Training Camp.
Anecdote: Under President of Baseball Ops Theo Epstein in the 5-year buildup to winning the 2016 MLB World Series, the Chicago Cubs would host an annual 4-day offsite with all of baseball operations ahead of each Spring Training to set the objectives and plan for the upcoming year.
When we think about checkpoints over the calendar year, we break them down into three distinct phases:
Checkpoint 1: Pre-Training Camp: set the next 12-month objectives and KPIs to measure progress throughout the year
Checkpoint 2: Pre-Trade Deadline: review progress and determine if on or off-track
If on-track, great
If off-track, determine the intervention plan to put the team back on-track
Checkpoint 3: End of Regular Season and Playoffs: review progress and determine if on or off-track
If on-track, great
If off-track, determine the intervention plan to put the team back on-track
The question then becomes: Who is responsible for setting the team objectives?
Factor 2: Setting Clear and Measurable Objectives
It is the responsibility of the GM to set clear and measurable objectives for both the long-term and the next 12-months to 1) align on the organization’s measure of success with the Owner, and 2) communicate to the team where exactly we are going
Objective setting within sports is often an afterthought. For starters, it feels obvious. Our goal, obviously, is to win the Championship.
The trouble with this attitude - that our objective is so obvious to-win-a-championship why do we need to even say it - is that a GM’s measure of success is now dictated by those outside of the organization; by the fans, the media, and the Owner’s chauffeur for all we know.
Given this dynamic, GMs should be doing everything in their power to take back control, to take back their own measure of success, to dictate what their objectives for the team should look like. Owners, equally, would very much agree that they would much rather discuss success 1-on-1 with their GM, than taking the pulse of the public, the media, or outsiders.
A second call to action should come when we look internally within an organization. A GM cannot guide a team without a ‘North Star’, without a clear sense of direction. One truth is people do not like uncertainty. High performance does not happen on unstructured foundations.
Anecdote: In the Chicago Cubs annual 4-day strategy offsite, the responsibility of the GM and his immediate leadership group was clear. The top leaders in baseball ops - Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, and Jason McLeod - would be responsible for setting the objectives for the upcoming season.
The question then becomes: How do GMs set clear objectives?
From our engagements with teams, we have found the best objectives in sports are those that are not binary in nature. A poor example is: Win the Championship.
A better example is one that takes time into consideration. For instance, our goal over the next 3 years could be to: Assemble a team that is capable of consistently contending at the NBA Finals, achieved by being the best-in-class in Scouting and Player Development, while staying aggressive in the Trade market.
Then we can break down this long-term goal into an objective for the next 12 months, the aim could be to: Acquire our first All-Star caliber player, and allow our team to play meaningful games up to and beyond this year’s Trade Deadline.
By breaking down the long-term goal into bite-sized objectives, it inspires the staff to take control of something that is within reach. No one within the organization knows what the first step towards a Championship looks like, so it’s the job of the GM to show the organization where that first step goes.
Using the next 12-month objective - Acquire our first All-Star caliber player - as an example, every individual within the organization can now focus their finite resources over the next 365 days to collectively solve this challenge. However, there are many paths to get there. That’s where the next factor comes in: let the staff define how we get there.
Factor 3: Building a Plan
Once the GM has set the objectives for the team, it is now up to the staff to build the plan. And that plan is simply the series of activities that help reach our objectives.
One distinction worth highlighting is who is responsible for setting the objectives for the team and who is responsible for building the plan.
We fully understand the nuance in this division of responsibility.
Looking at where GMs have come from, they were all functional experts in their past lives - Scouting directors, Cap gurus, etc. - stepping into the big job for the first time. As a functional expert, one is responsible for owning every detail of how something is done - for example, how a Scouting report is written. As a GM, one is responsible for setting the objectives - for example, defining what a perfect player for our organization looks like.
We understand this is difficult, because this calls for GMs to un-learn the old habits (that they did very successfully) that got them to the big job in the first place. Becoming a GM is detaching ownership of how something is done, and instead letting your team deliver that for you.
As a GM, it is your responsibility to set the objective, then let your team get on with it.
Anecdote: At the Chicago Cubs annual 4-day strategy offsite, everyone in the organization is involved in building the plan. Once Theo Epstein and the leadership group had set the objectives for the upcoming year, the rest of the organization would contribute to setting the strategy. The output was a spiral-bound master plan for the season, titled the ‘Cubs Way’ - this informed every aspect of the organization, from how we Scout, to how we Develop Players, to how we Coach, to how we act as members of the Cubs organization.
One of the most powerful benefits of setting objectives and building a plan is obtaining buy-in from the staff.
In our conversations with GMs, one of their biggest fears is not knowing who is in and who is out, or said more bluntly, who the GM can trust to deliver their vision. Going through the Strategic Planning process with the team will identify who is in and who is out, or at least it gives people a chance.
The objectives are not up for debate. The plan, on the other hand, is.
If a staff member does not believe in the team objectives set by the GM, then maybe it’s best for that staff member to find another organization to work for. GMs get buy-in from the staff on objectives, not on the plan. Building the plan should be a democratic and collaborative process.
Finally, we must scenario plan, because this is where competitive advantage is found.
Assume it has become table stakes for every organization to set clear objectives and build a robust plan, what will be the differentiator is how quickly and agile the organization can tweak its plan while still reaching for the same objectives.
Scenario planning must happen for both negative and positive events. Planning for the pre-mortem in negative events, GMs will inevitably encounter crises - whether that’s a public PR fallout, or an injury to a star player. The scenario planning is asking the team: how can we proactively prevent such a crisis, or if it happens how do we react?
For positive scenarios, GMs should always be prepared for the opportunistic chances that arise. For example, if a star player suddenly becomes available unexpectedly, the scenario planning will ask the team: does acting on this opportunity help us achieve our original objectives, and how do we proactively prepare for a change in our plan?
The failure to scenario plan at the end of the strategic planning process can be fatal. The rule of thumb is - the objectives do not change, but the plan should be flexible.
So where do we go from here?
First and foremost, we are entering the window for Strategic Planning and it is important we capitalize on this limited window now. In our view, the strategic planning process should take place at least one month before Training Camp begins, and this process should take no more than a week.
Secondly, the fear in letting others dictate your measures of success should be a wake up call for any GM to take action today. As a GM, it is in your best interest to set your own objectives for your team, on your own terms. We are certain that Owners would want the same - to have a GM they hired to set the objectives for their team, rather than letting outsiders - the fans or the media - do so.
Lastly, let’s help the GM build a plan that’s done collaboratively as an organization. Let’s help the GM scenario plan. It’s okay if the GM is still making the difficult transition from a functional expert to a leader of the organization. It’s okay if the GM is unsure who is bought-in to the goals of the organization. Let’s lend a hand because we, the Owner, and the GM all want the same outcome - to be on the path to Championship success.
By Darren He