Decoding the Mystery of Great Team Chemistry

by Jeff Tzucker

December 21, 2012

"When you look at an organization," Pacers GM Kevin Pritchard told me, "And how to perform—specifically with an individual—if you can figure out how to improve it a little bit, everybody just a little bit, the organization benefits a lot."

Kevin Pritchard is a man who champions the cause, who bleeds the brand. He won't hide from it, won't be ashamed of it, and will leave his stamp on it. Why? Because he believes that if everyone pitches in selflessly, you may not win every time out on the floor, but what you create is something far more important: The right environment. And, out of the right environment, success can occur. This is the magic of great teams, that elusive "chemistry". Great teams are selfless and relentlessly practice something former North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith used to preach:

Help the Helper

The phrase, Help the Helper, used as the title in Kevin Pritchard's new book (co-written with Dr. John Eliot, Ph.D.) is simple, but its effect profound. In fact, it's at at the heart of everything great teams do: Help the person who's helping the person at the center of action.

Sounds confusing, I know. But it's not. Let me explain.

In a basketball game, helping the helper might play out like this:

  1. There is a primary action on the court—for example, a guard brings the ball up the court. However, the guard ("ballhandler") is facing a pressing defense and is having a hard time getting across the half-court line to avoid a back-court penalty.
  2. To free the ball-handler, a teammate (the helper) leaves his designated spot on the floor to set a screen. However, the helper left the spot where he would otherwise catch a pass to avoid a backcourt penalty. Now, there's no one there and the team risks turning the ball over on a penalty.
  3. Seeing the gap left on the floor, you run to the open spot, catch a press-breaking pass from the ball-handler and help the team avoid a back-court penalty. You have just helped the helper.

In every day life, helping the helper happens all the time, but often escapes notice. An example might be an elderly family member who is unable to take care of themselves any longer. Someone, often a family member, takes on the extra duty to help out. Those around the situation see the help clearly happening—it's a visible act close to the center of action. Because the helper is so close to the center of action, he or she may gain praise from others for it. This is similar to the basketball player above setting a screen and getting credit from a TV or radio announcer for it.

But, let's say you help the helper by bringing food, cleaning house, or running errands for the person helping the elderly relative? No one really sees you helping since your help is happening two steps away from the center of action. Little glory is passed your way, even though your act of helping the helper is indispensable and necessary. Do you get frustrated that no one is heaping praise on you? Or do you just go about your business and are happy to help any way you can?

Ladies and gentlemen, helping the helper.

Frankly, it's an elegant way of looking at teamwork of all kinds, from sports to business to friends and family. And what makes it unique in this era of business leadership books and sports-stat-geekery is that helping the helper is about building the right culture, not simply relying on stats to build a team.

Not that you should throw out stats, but...

According to Pritchard and Dr. Eliot, the problem with statistical analysis is stats can't predict what someone will do next year or how someone behaves when the cameras are off. Stats only look at what has happened and what is measurable. But, a positive, unselfish culture based around helping the helper creates an environment ripe for success.

"We evaluate talent and sometimes you like players and they just kind of make you tingle." Pritchard's voice rises a little. "Like, man, that guy can jump, he can do this, he can do that. Take that aside for a second, remove that.

"When the guy walks to the bench, you watch how he interacts with his coach, how he walks into the locker room. Does he high-five his teammates when they're playing? Is he as excited when they make plays or is he all in his own world that he can't get out? Those are the things that if you can really get a handle on it—and it's not easy, it's difficult—but it's the foundation to me of a player that's willing to do two things: Be unselfish and be tough."

He pauses.

"But you have to be willing to be part of something bigger than yourself."

To speak metaphorically, what Pritchard is describing feels a bit like the age-old difference between Looks and Personality. For example:

The Kobe-Shaq-Payton-Malone Lakers may have been a good-looking team on paper, but their personality wasn't great. They weren't greater than the sum of their parts and, as their Finals loss shows, their sum was certainly less than Detroit's—a better team.

Conversely, the 1980s Lakers and Celtics are still revered because along with all their individual talent, the teams played together beautifully, selflessly. To continue the metaphor, those teams had a great personality along with good looks.

(If you go down the line of NBA Finals teams, it's often pretty clear who was more beautiful, who was better-looking, and who was too overwhelming in one or the other category for the opposition to overcome. Take a minute to do it—It's an illuminating exercise. I digress.)

So, what do these sports analogies have to do with business or family or friends? Help the Helper translates to the boardroom to cubicles to anything in your life that demands more than one person to do. And the code goes for anyone at any level of any organization.

Creating a successful team seems easy enough to say, but how do you find people with those traits, let alone build an entire team with those traits? According to Pritchard, you first need to define what style of team you want to help eliminate the noise.

"So if you're this," Pritchard tells me, gesturing with his right hand. "You say, 'Listen, we're a team that plays with toughness and unselfishness.' Anything you do player personnel-wise (trades, drafts, or free agent signings) better fit in to what you're about. And it actually helps you make decisions because you can immediately say, 'What about this player?' And if he doesn't fit in, you can say, 'Nah, doesn't fit.' Then it becomes a smaller pool of players and you can evaluate which one really fits the best, what are the best evaluation metrics. It helps you define and trickle down in terms of your decision-making process."

At the expense of sounding like a homer, this current Pacers squad feels like it is just that: Working for something bigger than themselves. And, in the face of Granger's injury, even more so than ever—particularly on the defensive side of the ball.

"I want to see a team that sticks together," said Pritchard, "that works hard, and that during the tough times, hunkers down and figures a way out. Because every year you have to figure it out. Every year presents new challenges, new problems."

When Granger went down, the team had to learn to adjust to helping each other in different ways. The roles changed, rotations changed, and the glory will not likely go to the one who is helping two steps away from the action. But, it must be done.

The good news is the team's culture is situated in the right place—unselfish guys willing to do what it takes for the good of the team. If you have the right attitude, you stand a chance to build a culture where winning can occur, whether it's in the office or on the court. But everyone has to be willing to pitch in wherever the help is needed.

"If Peter and Paul and everybody in here," Pritchard said, waving his right hand around in a circular motion, "If we would just become a little bit better, then as a group we're a lot better."