The Tweak: What Kentucky's 2014 Basketball Team Can Teach Us About Problem Solving

"Play for the name on the front of the jersey, and the world will know
the name on the back." —Coach John Calipari

The 2013–2014 basketball season was looking grim for the Kentucky Wildcats. They'd suffered some hard losses, including home losses to Florida and Arkansas, and a disheartening defeat at South Carolina after Coach John Calipari was ejected from the game. Despite being loaded with talent, Kentucky was not playing the elite level basketball the program is famous for. Just before the SEC Tournament, John Calipari made the now-famous "tweak." While it seemed like a change to Andrew Harrison's game, the tweak was also about what he did for his teammates. Coach Cal told Harrison that he was going to pass instead of shoot, and create plays for his teammates. Instead of being the hero taking the shot, he was setting someone else up for success. Essentially, Andrew Harrison changed the way he related with his teammates on the court. This changed the whole dynamic of the team, and landed them in the final game of the tournament, contending for Kentucky's 9th national title.

When it comes to our work lives, the common mistake many teams make is relationally compartmentalizing tasks, workloads, departments, etc. Then when problems arise, we tend to focus on the immediate nature of the problem, i.e., the things that aren't working, and who is able to fix it. We forget that every problem we face has a relational component because we are relational beings. Sometimes, this compartmentalization leads us to focus on the wrong facet of the problem. John Calipari wasn't just wondering why his team couldn't win, or seeing it from an exclusively strategic standpoint. He saw it from a humanistic perspective as well, whether he knew it or not. The tweak made Andrew Harrison a more selfless player by getting him to engage his teammates and create plays. When he did this, they were cohesive,  and they enjoyed playing together even more. They weren't just a better team, they were nearly unstoppable.

When your team hits a snag, or just isn't able to go full steam ahead, and you can't figure out why, start by considering the relational component to the challenge at hand. Talk with your colleagues and get feedback. Show your colleagues that they're valued by including them in the discussion, and explore how you can use your existing relationships to devise solutions. Maybe someone is taking on too much work. Maybe someone needs to work differently, but doesn't feel comfortable asking for what they need. Cultivate trust by listening to what they have to say, and empathizing with where they are coming from. Work together to find solutions by shifting the focus more to the relational instead of the practical.

Every successful collaboration I've been a part of had genuine chemistry. We enjoyed working together and being together. Outside of our work, we were friends. The key to our success was how we invested in each other as people, and the fact that we were playing for the "name on the front of the jersey," working for the goal of the project. Because the foundation — our relationships with each other — were solid, we were able to embrace bumps in the road with relative ease, and deliver a successful product. The foundation of what makes the work successful is our relationships with one another.

It is paramount to the success of the project that we take the time to both build the foundation of relationship and nurture it. When Calipari's 2014 team made the tweak, they almost immediately began firing on all cylinders. They gelled, and working as a cohesive unit, they became one of the most formidable teams on the bracket. Next time things are feeling off, don't ignore the obvious challenges, but instead of just addressing the challenge, look at how to eliminate that as a future factor by making a tweak. A few relational changes can go a long way, and even determine the success of the project.

Happy March Madness!