In 2013, the Phoenix Suns name Ryan McDonough as general manager, the position responsible for drafting players, making free agent deals, managing the salary cap — in short, building an NBA team.
Unfortunately, McDonough’s tenure doesn’t go well. NBA teams, like any business, are measured by results, and for three years in a row the Suns lose twice as many games as they win and finish at the bottom of their division.
Just as success tends to breed success, failure tends to breed failure. Morale is down. Enthusiasm is low. Energy levels are flagging.
If you’re Robert Sarver, the owner of the Suns, the buck stops with you; it’s your job to right the ship, get things back on track, and evidently mix a few metaphors.
At this point, you know conventional motivational techniques won’t cut it. No mysteriously moved cheeses. No chicken soup for your organization’s soul. No friends to win, no people to influence, no heptagonal habits to embrace.
You also don’t think relatively unconventional motivational techniques will work. Shoot, you’ve already tried things no other owner would consider. Like barging into the locker room at halftime to yell at future Hall of Famer Grant Hill for letting Vince Carter score 15 quick points, or to tell your coaches which defensive strategies to use. Like going into the locker room after a game to teach players how to set screens. Like heckling your own players from your courtside seat.
Like taking team execs out to dinner, and using the opportunity to highlight your management chops by giving the restaurant’s owner advice on how to improve his operation.
Nope. In this case, you know you have to go all out. You know this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody’s part. And you’re just the guy to do it. But what?
Then it hits you. McDonough needs to find a great player, right. McDonough needs to find a transcendent player. McDonough needs to find a GOAT, a greatest-of-all-time caliber player.
So you get some actual goats. Some cud-chewing, four-chamber stomached, suppliers to artisanal cheesemakers (a reference not to be taken literally; it could refer to any manufacturers of dairy products).
You herd the goats into McDonough’s office and close the door.
“Ha-ha!” you think. The perfect stunt. The perfect, unforgettable metaphor. Shake things up?
You betcha: The organization will be thinking and talking about goats — and more to the point, GOATs — for years to come.
Turns out you’re right, since the goats take the opportunity to highlight their biological chops by (crapping) all over McDonough’s office.
Which turns out to be the metaphor everyone actually remembers.
That’s the problem with grand motivational stunts. They’re one-off events. At their best, a stunt can be exciting and thrilling. They can be inspiring and motivating. For a few minutes.
Then the glow wears off and reality storms back in. The problems you faced? They still exist. The challenges? They still exist. The roadblocks, the constraints, the shortcomings? Still there.
Having Run-DMC perform days after you’ve laid off 7 percent of your staff doesn’t change the fact that you just fired a whole bunch of people.
No mater how grand, those gestures are ultimately futile because nothing substantive — nothing that actually helps improve productivity, or quality, or decision-making, or processes, or anything meaningful — has changed.
So save the grand gestures for celebration. For recognition. For appreciation. For showing your employees how important they are to your business, and to you.
Because that’s the only gesture that actually makes a difference.