A lot of surprise at Brian Burke’s decision to join the Calgary Flames as president of hockey operations. He’d told people earlier in the summer that he wasn’t interested, only to change his mind. The one thing everyone who knows him said? Some version of "No way he is going without control." There are a lot of layers in Calgary, a lot of people who like to call the shots.
That’s from Elliotte Friedman’s most recent 30 thoughts column and it gives voice to the great unanswered question of the Brian Burke addition – just how is this all going to work? We can’t speak in specifics about the Flames front office culture or politics, but we can talk theoretically. More to the point, let’s look at how the Burke hire may improve or hamper the Calgary organization via generally understood social mechanisms.
Elliotte touches on the most pressing concern – that the Flames executive suite has a lot of "layers"; meaning a number of big hats with loud voices jostling to be heard. Burke joins Jay Feaster, John Weisbrod and Ken King at the top of the pyramid, to say nothing of the various "support staff" just below the apex including Craig Conroy, Chris Snow, Tod Button, etc.
Probably the worst outcome would be a confused authority structure and the ensuing chaos of a power struggle between King and Burke or Burke and Feaster (etc), which would no doubt result in the splintering of factions throughout the organization. The Flames are going to have their struggles on the ice over the next few seasons – the long journey to success will no doubt be lengthened by anarchy and squabbling amongst the execs and ownership.
Beware of Groupthink
Ironically there is also the opposite threat. It’s an issue, I think, that is probably far more prevalent in many NHL front offices than is immediately obvious: the scourge of groupthink.
While we can easily reflect on the value of a well structured, unified front office working in unison, the unfortunate truth is that a rigidly hierarchical group of like-minded individuals can easily devolve into an insulated, credulous collective that is dumb to information and feedback.
To illustrate and contrast: In the first instance noted above, picture a collection of men randomly setting out in all directions, each yelling over the other to determine the way forward. In the second instance, picture, instead, an orderly single file lineup of guys wearing blindfolds, each stepping in perfect rhythm to the footsteps of the man in front of him, as they march off a cliff.
Groupthink is not merely the province of the stupid or obsequious. Roomfuls of highly intelligent individuals can fall prey to the seduction of a perfect, perpetual consensus that gives the illusion of infallibility or righteousness. Groupthink in organizations is especially insidious because it deters the flow of information from traveling upward. Meaning: negative feedback or data that falls outside of the leadership’s established orthodoxy tends to be punished, ignored or "lost". And unless the leadership is actually infallible, not heeding critical information is bad news.
I suspect this is what happened in Calgary under the iron fist of Darryl Sutter, particularly after he filled the organization with friends and family. It’s also something that could happen beneath Burke if he is handed the reins and is left free to completely re-make the org in his own image. As discussed in my previous post on the subject, Burke is charismatic, stubborn and not terribly interested in hearing about "new" ways of interpreting the game. As such, he’s the sort of man who could fashion another cult of personality in the front office through his combination of magnetic confidence, noteworthy experience and engaging candor. That is, a culture that would inoculate the decision makers from unpleasant critical feedback or unfamiliar analytical advances.
I suggest the last thing the rebuilding Flames need is a guy shouting about truculence at the media and a collection of empty hats behind him nodding in unison.
The Devil’s Advocate
Puck Daddy recently posted a video detailing the Boston Bruins’ decision to trade Tyler Seguin this summer. Surprisingly, many of the justifications for the move discussed by Boston’s suits seemed cliched and shallow (at least from an outsiders perspective). In response, Tyler Dellow noted:
I sometimes think that NHL teams would benefit greatly just from having a guy around in management who is willing to be the guy who says things that are awkward for other guys in the room.
I noted something similar on the value of a Devil’s advocate when Feaster was hired by the Flames:
Jay Feaster has stated explicitly in Calgary press conferences that he likes to encourage input from other decision-makers. He has also been self-deprecating and willing to admit past errors, which suggests he’s aware of his fallibility but willing to adapt.
Assurances to the media don’t necessarily guarantee the team won’t slip back into the old mode of organization however. There are ways the club can deter groupthink and continue to foster an environment where open communication and multiple perspectives though; primary amongst which is to purposefully foster conflict.
Agreement for the sake of agreement is avoided if the devil’s advocate is implemented properly. Premises and assumptions are challenged and the basis of each decision must be robustly defended in the face of (these) challenges. “Programming” conflict as a matter of organizational policy also ensures disagreement isn’t taken personally.
Ideally, the addition of Burke is the addition of a smart, measured voice of dissension. Either because Burke himself is positioned as the conscious interloper at team meetings, and/or because the club’s collection executives organizes themselves so that each guy’s strengths and weaknesses are aligned in complementary fashion. Meaning: discussion, incredulity and a conscious discomfort with enforced consensus are woven into the fabric of the Flames front office.
Calgary is going to need managerial competence, patience and more than a little luck to find their way out of the desert over the next few seasons. Here’s hoping the Burke hire means an organized yet adaptable front office, rather than a heterogeneous mix of antagonists or a homogenous assortment of yes men.