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 fact 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 a psychological standpoint, if the Raptors has an unchanging narrative, then we can confidently claim that the organization has some systemic limitations.
The passage above is taken from an article we published six months ago. Since that day some significant events have transpired in the land of Raptors. First, the team traded for Rudy Gay, a so-called franchise player. Then, Tim Leiweki, a businessman, whose success is internationally-recognized, became the president of the MLSE. Next, Bryan Colangelo, the former two-time Executive of the Year, was replaced with Masai Ujiri, the latest Executive of the Year. Finally, much to Raptors fans’ delight, Andrea Bargnani was ultimately traded for a future first-round pick.
One could claim that after years of mediocrity the Raptors are finally heading towards the right direction. Even so, are those moves enough to overcome the limitations of the Raptors as an organization? How does the future look like for the Raptors? Could this team finally overcome the 50-win hurdle? The Systems Theory might have all the answers.
Systems are everywhere, dominating our everyday lives: weather system, planetary system, political system, traffic system, immune system, financial system, or organizational system, among others. We know what is a system intuitively, even though we cannot articulate our thoughts fluently coherently, and eloquently. The most basic description of a system is that it a set of interconnected parts that create a dynamic response.
The most basic description of a system is that it a set of interconnected parts that create a dynamic response.
Systems are beautiful. Yet they have a property that scares most of us: It is impossible to predict what is going to happen next on a system. Take stock exchange, for instance. The system is so complex that it is inconceivable for a computer model to make precise short-term predictions. That’s why stockbrokers rely on the educated guess. Likewise, it is the unpredictability of the plate tectonics system that makes it is impossible to know when and where the next earthquake will hit.
If we focus on the short term, a system will look utterly chaotic. However, something exciting will happen if we broaden our time frame. We would realize that, eventually, the system starts to organize on its own, allowing a pattern of behaviour to emerge. Out of chaos, a new long-term order arises. Maybe we cannot predict what will happen five minutes from now, but we sure can forecast how the system will react over an extended period of time.
As mentioned before, every system creates a pattern of behaviour. Ultimately, though, those patterns fall into place, creating what’s called the System Archetypes. System thinkers acknowledge that ten archetypes generally form most of the patterns of behaviour in systems.
We claim that three of those ten archetypes apply to the Raptors Organization. They are responsible for the extended lack of success of the franchise. Also, based on our hypothesis, they are the ones, if appropriately tackled, could let the organization soar like an eagle.
The systems archetype that requires our immediate attention is “Shifting the Burden.” This pattern of behaviour happens when we quickly treat a symptom, instead of tackling the real issue. That is an insidious archetype, for once the symptomatic solution has had its effect, there is little-perceived need to pay attention to the fundamental problem. The Shifting the Burden archetype teaches us that symptoms could shield the real issue.
How is that archetype related to Toronto Raptors? For decades, the lack of success of the Raptors was attributed to the Canadian stigma: “It is too cold. It is too dark. It is too far. It is a hockey nation. It is another country. My friends and family need a passport. There is no ESPN in Canada.”
While we should not pretend that such criticism is groundless, we must also acknowledge that none of those complaints is the root cause of the problem. Those are nothing but alibis hiding the real issue: Among the NBA community, the Raptors are not perceived as a winning organization.
To be able to break free from the “Shifting the Burden” archetype, the new management should focus on tackling the fundamental problem, not the symptomatic ones. The ultimate mandate of Leiweki and Ujiri should be to change the mindset of the organization as well as the perceptions around the league about Toronto.
That is a tall order, for there are no shortcuts for changing organizational culture. Even if Ujiri manages to change the Raptors’ culture, he will have a tough time dealing with outsiders’ perceptions. For that reason, no matter how successful the new management could become, the Raptors franchise cannot solve its fundamental issue by itself. The Raptors organization operates within a larger system: Toronto, which in return operates within an even more extensive system, Canada.
NBA is an American league and the American culture deeply -and almost fanatically- values winning. Currently, Toronto is not perceived as a driven sports city like -let’s say- Boston. The interesting thing about perceptions is that they are like glaciers. They move excruciatingly slow, but once they start making headway, they cannot be stopped.
We could liken the Canadian Stigma to a pool. Multiple pumps are filling up that pool. Toronto Raptors is just one of them. That’s why the franchise cannot change the perceptions about the city (or country) on its own.
Fair or not, Raptors will need a couple of Toronto sports team (or figures) to start winning at the international stage (besides itself) before perceptions would begin to change. That brings us to the second archetype, Escalation, the topic of our next article. Share your thoughts below.