Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that the Michael Lewis-penned book Moneyball is a favorite of mine. If the only version of Lewis’s work you’re familiar with is the movie version, I encourage you to seek out the book. In the name of Hollywood-style drama and simplicity, Brad Pitt’s version took some shortcuts and made some simplifications to both shrink the narrative to a less-mathematically-based story and ramp up the human drama. That’s not to say I’m not a fan of the movie, too, but Lewis teaches a lot of lessons that the movie doesn’t attempt.
But the story that comes through from both the celluloid and paperbound versions is about outside-the-box thinking; learning to value what others see as disposable. It’s about finding new ways to determine value and how best to exploit the value you have at your disposal. And it’s why I find the story of Jim Crowley, the head coach of women’s basketball at St. Bonaventure University in upstate New York such a treat to read about.
The “Bonnies” were not a very good team. In 2005, they’d completed their fifth straight losing season, and nothing looked to change for the future. St. Bonaventure couldn’t compete for the top recruits—the ones with the stellar shooting percentage, the leaping ability so prized in basketball, or the physical attributes of size and strength that make college coaches salivate. So Crowley—after reading Moneyball—started looking at other statistics. Specifically, he started looking at turnovers.
One of the basic principles of basketball—and of football, for that matter—is that if your opponents don’t have the ball, they can’t score. So Crowley started looking for recruits who could hold on to the ball. That meant avoiding a turnover when they found themselves double-teamed or operating in traffic. The results have been little short of spectacular. Since introducing his unorthodox recruiting philosophy (and a coaching strategy that stresses maintaining possession and keeping a body between the ball and the basket, without making showboat moves to steal or block shots), the Bonnies have posted a .672 winning percentage, and this year, they cracked the top 25 for the first time in school history, having lost only two games out of 29. They are poised for an appearance in the NCAA Tournament. Whether they go deep or not, that is a victory for creative thinking.
Small businesses (and small law firms—a particular interest of mine) face similar challenges. How do you compete with the big boys, who bring many thousands of dollars of resources to the table? Sometimes, competing means not competing—at least not directly. Look for the undervalued asset, and turn it to your advantage, whether that asset is flexibility, experience in a particular area, or personal attributes. It’s the ultimate lesson of Moneyball, and it applies far beyond the realm of baseball and far beyond sports, itself.