Systems Thinking and Toronto Raptors

Two years ago, I wrote an article about the Raptors’ brand strategy or lack thereof. Recently, I asked the Raptors Republic community what has changed over the last two years. The topic generated decent interest and started an excellent dialogue, so I decided to edit my comments and share them with you. It is about thinking Toronto Raptors not as a team, but as a system. Enjoy it!

I do not believe Brian Colangelo is a successful GM. I do not think he deserves the job. However, I think that the Raptors’ organizational problems extend far beyond Colangelo. I also believe that by just hiring a new, smarter and more capable GM, Raptors cannot solve all of its problems.

Make no mistake: A GM plays a crucial role in shaping a franchise. However, if we look closely, we will realize that in life nothing exists in a vacuum. Everything (even sub-atomic particles that are millions of light-years away!) is interconnected, and that is scientifically proven. Today, we have a better idea about how organizations, brands, and culture are formed. The Systems Thinking Theory shows us that every organization operates within a system. We can analyze and engineer different parts of a system, but we can grow the system only through enhancing the interaction among its parts’. Any attempt to maximize “a part” of the system causes the overall value of the system to decrease.

So, we have to accept that a GM is just a part, albeit a large part, operating within a large system. So, as unsuccessful as I think Colangelo is, bringing a new GM might not be the silver bullet, for which we are looking. Let’s entertain for a second the idea of the Raptors firing Colangelo and bringing Sam Presti with unlimited power and budget. Presti, arguably one of the best GM’s in the game, still would have to operate within the same Raptors’ Organizational System. He would have to deal with the same ownership group, who’s not particularly passionate about the game of basketball. My personal observation is that the ownership is in this primarily to make money. It would not make a big difference for them had Raptors were a soccer or a lacrosse team. That is a part of the Raptors’ Organizational System, which shapes the action of its GM.

Another part of the Raptors system is the Raptors fans. In nearly two decades, the Raptors have yet to win 50 games a season. Despite its mediocre track record, every game is almost sold out, and the franchise is one of the 12 most valuable NBA teams. The fact that a franchise can protect, even increase its value, while losing so many games makes you wonder the GM’s performance evolution criteria. That is another part of the Raptors’ Organizational System.

Then, we have to look at the larger system: Toronto sports culture. Unfortunately, no Toronto team has been particularly successful for some time (except the Argonauts and Rocks). That does not create a real sense of urgency in Toronto. For instance, the ethos of Lakers, Celtics, Thunder or the Spurs is “championship or bust.” That is not how Toronto sports teams approach their business. The GM has to live in that system too.

Finally, there is the largest system: the Canadian culture. The collective unconscious of Canadians and Americans are very different. The  “warrior” and “seeker” archetypes that dominate the US culture are toned down in Canada. Culturally, it is more acceptable for Canadians to participate than to dominate. (As an immigrant, I greatly appreciate that.) Being “part” of the action, not its “vanguard” is more valued in Canada. For instance, upon interviewing the CEO’s of iconic Canadian brands, Jeannette Hanna found that it is almost a taboo for a Canadian brand to make a profit “by any means necessary.” Instead, community-driven brands are vastly successful in Canada (Tim Horton’s and Canadian Tire among others) That mentality is completely different in the US (mortgage bubble, Dot-com bubble, ENRON,  etc.,) which is another part of the Raptors’ Organizational System.

Under the management of Bryan Colangelo, Toronto Raptors has been getting progressively worse. That is a fact. We should not let that, however, overshadow the reality that this two-decade-old organization never had a successful GM since its inception (except Glen Grunwald.) Many bigwigs came and went, but the narrative of the Raptors stayed the same: an NBA outpost and an afterthought organization, where no superstar wants to stay. From the psychological standpoint, if the Raptors has an unchanging narrative, then we can confidently claim that the organization has some systemic limitations.

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8 Replies to “Systems Thinking and Toronto Raptors”

  1. Sadly i have not watching my sport on the NBA platform etc so it a hard answer so to speak. And am new to system thinking (read this publish last year though). Never the less am here to learn so here I go again. I don’t think the problem is with the Toronto Raptors owners- if they are still the owners, nor the fans nor Canadian culture. Even if it was there is nothing that can be done about it (in our era any way). There problem is the NBA. It has not caused a business paradigm shift like it has done with NBA China- again Google; Entrepreneurship a good play for NBA in China. The NBA knows what it will gain in China. It also knows what it will lose if the competition gets it first. It has taken the NBA years to even get a peep into China. It is looking critically & carefully at India. The same with Africa/Nigeria. It is yet to break in cause of cricket & soccer and other factors.

    What of Canada? Is it just being a neighbor an extension of the U.S; not to be bothered with?

    I have not stepped into Canada yet but I know an opportunity is waiting to be created of the kind of culture & mentality one finds there. That’s what i see from that “…are toned down in Canada”, in your write up.

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Ohio.

    I think you discovered yet another layer of the Toronto Raptors’ systematic problem. As you see, the solution is never as easy as firing the GM. Organizations are complex organisms.

    That said, in life, what gets attention tends to grow. So, instead of focusing all the attention to fixing what’s wrong, I’d suggest they should focus on discovering what’s right and try to build on that.

    My article regarding the Canadian archetype is aimed to start a conversation on that topic. If an organization claims to be the “Canada’s team” then Canada needs to be analyzed. Once there is a clear and compelling insight, then marketers can find ways to make Canada, Toronto and the Raptors relevant to NBA players.

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