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by Vault Consulting Editors | February 19, 2009

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Those interested in the different places a consulting career can take you might want to check out this excellent profile of Houston Rockets forward Shane Battier, and Daryl Morey, the franchise's general manager. (Be warned, though -- it runs to a time-consuming eight pages.) A former consultant with The Parthenon Group, Morey's NBA career started when he was part of a group tasked with reorganizing the Boston Celtics -- a role that led him to begin rethinking the game of basketball in the process. It wasn't until he was snapped up by the Rockets, however, that he really came into his own.

The cornerstone of Morey's success, according to the article, is something many consultants will be familiar with -- an ability to break down statistical data and find what's important to improving an organization. The difference for Morey, however, is that he does it with player stats -- only he uses them differently to just about everyone else in basketball. The key to the approach, the article says, is that "for most of its history basketball has measured not so much what is important as what is easy to measure ? points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocked shots ? and these have warped perceptions of the game."

Thinking outside the box

Now, there's a lesson in there for anyone who relies on statistics to measure human performance -- the lesson being that most humans do things that stats can't or don't measure. In the case of Shane Battier ? a fairly ordinary player, or so his stats would suggest -- those things include an almost magical ability to reduce the opposition's ability to score, while collectively raising the performance of his own teammates. And until Daryl Morey came along, no one knew why. The key, apparently, is that Battier does things like block an opponent's view of the basket when he's shooting -- something that doesn't show up on his stats, but which reduces the effectiveness of the opponent. And he does other things that are good for the team -- like communicating, being in the right place at the right time, and even volunteering to sit on the bench when he thinks someone else is a better option -- none of which are measured, but all of which go towards making he and his team better than their stats suggest.

Faced with this reality, then, Morey seems to have realized that the problem of looking at stats in basketball (and, one assumes, some other sports) comes down not only to interpreting the data, but to the very problem of what data to collect. There are suggestions throughout the article that Morey has his own method and measurements, and it's something most consultants would do well to learn from: just because everyone else uses the same parameters to measure a company's performance, there's no reason you have to stick to those same metrics. As Morey points out in the article, the traditional set of stats for measuring players -- known in the game as the box score -- is deeply flawed. An example of a flaw is that players know which stats they're being rewarded for, and play to boost those -- a situation that sets up a conflict between doing what's good for the team and the individual.

So how does this apply to consultants, other than the fact that Morey used to be one? Well, a consultant's job is to look at an organization and assess its performance -- including that of the organization's employees. By focusing only on standard "box scores," however -- things like output levels or productivity -- consultants run the risk of missing an employee's true value to their firm. Sure, the guy in the middle cubicle doesn't put out as much work as the people on either side of him. But maybe that's because he's spending his time giving advice and support to those two -- something that cuts into his personal stats but works for the overall good of the company. The other two, meanwhile, may well be doing things that enhance their stats, but which are undercutting the firm's long-term goals or good standing.

So what's the take-away? How about one more quote from the article: "How many points a player scores ? is no true indication of how much he has helped his team." Too boring? Well, how about the fact that there are options for consultants beyond engagements at out-of-town business parks and millions of frequent flier miles. Daryl Morey's the living proof.

--Posted by Phil Stott

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