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“System” Players: The More The Better

“System players” are generally defined as those whose success is attributed more to circumstances and communal good fortune than to individual ability or competence.  The term is problematic, however, because in team sports it can be extremely difficult to evaluate a player independent of how he/she operates within a particular scheme.  Every athlete is effectively a “system player” even the ones who allegedly “elevate those around them”.  Some systems just allow players to better enhance collective performance than others.  Granted, certain players exercise unique gifts irrespective of their environment.  Talent evaluation in sport is often a crapshoot though because it is not a controlled experiment.

Look at the upcoming NFL Draft.  It’s an educated guessing game with a lot of money on the line.  There are no sure things and even the players whose prospects seem more favorable are unlikely to fulfill their potential in a dysfunctional organization.  The system player conversation is not a unique one philosophically.  It’s an extension of the nature/nurture debate only in this instance nature is synonymous with individual talent and nurture with organizational dynamics.  Nature and nurture both matter albeit in different relative proportions depending on the setting.  In other words, we know that both nature and nurture are influential just not always to what degree and under what circumstances.

In light of this uncertainty, it’s troubling that “system player” has come to mean something derogatory.  “System players” perform well otherwise they’d just be labeled “bad” players. Assuming for the moment that minimally talented players can flourish in robust “systems”, the inevitable question should be, “How can organizations maximize player output, even that of the lesser talented ones, by fostering the right environment?”  To be clear, this argument applies to systems and players within the same level of competition (e.g. an NBA point guard who has already excelled in the NBA vs. a successful collegiate point guard who has yet to play professionally).  When accounting for scale, the system player phenomenon as traditionally defined is either an indictment of the player or the coaching staff/front office.  The popular narrative is that it is an indictment of the player.  Perhaps it’s the opposite.

The burden is on leaders of an organization to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts.  High performing organizations thrive in complex and chaotic environments.  Military special operations units, emergency medical departments, professional aviators, technical rescue teams, NASCAR pit crews, and orchestral conductors seek to continually refine their “systems” to better leverage the capabilities within their organizations.  Creating “system players” is a point of pride within these teams, not a disparagement of a soldier, aviator, physician, rescuer, or musician. Individual ability will always be relevant but the most successful organizations are those whose “systems” aren’t completely dependent on superior talent.  Not every organization can win the talent arms race.

Accountability is both a bottom up and a top down process.  Within many organizational hierarchies, the player must justify his/her worth to the coaching staff or front office but not necessarily the other way around.  Organizations are more adaptable when the hierarchies are fluid, perhaps to the point that hierarchy isn’t the appropriate term.  Many organizations would be better served to de-emphasize hierarchies and instead prioritize multi-directional accountability or “extreme ownership” (credit to Jocko Willink and Leif Babin for this term).  Accountable leaders seek to create as many “system players” as possible, including assistants who could instantly replace them without disturbing the organization.  Hence why coaches and executives who deride a high performing player within their level of competition as the “product of a system” are completely detached from what their purpose is.

When pundits say that someone like Steph Curry is a system player…