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June 4, 2024

Managing Change in Higher Ed: Lessons from the Triangle Offense

In professional basketball, the triangle offense stands out as a strategic masterpiece. Popularized by Tex Winter and adopted by Coach Phil Jackson, this offensive system helped the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers secure numerous championships. But beyond the hardwood, the principles of the triangle offense offer profound insights into managing change in complex organizations. This blog intends to explore how this legendary basketball strategy can serve as a metaphor for driving transformation and achieving success in Higher Ed.  

In a previous blog, I talked about a “Triangle of Change” featuring Leadership, Change Management, and Technology. That blog was also inspired by my thoughts about the triangle offense, but it focused on a specific example in Higher Ed, whereas this blog will “zoom out” and identify broadly repeatable practices viewed through the lens of this system. 

The Formation: Establishing a Strong Foundation 
The triangle offense begins with a simple yet effective formation: three players form a triangle on one side of the court, while two others position themselves to maintain balance and spacing. Similarly, in managing organizational change, establishing a strong foundation is crucial. This step involves: 
        1.      Clear Vision and Goals: Just as the triangle offense has a clear structure, organizations need a well-defined vision and specific goals. This clarity guides decision-making and aligns efforts across the organization. 
        2.      Key Players: Identify the key stakeholders and leaders who will drive the change. These individuals, like the players forming the triangle, are critical in setting the tone and leading by example. 
        3.      Strategic Positioning: Ensure that each team member knows their role and responsibilities. Proper positioning within the organizational structure allows for efficient execution and minimizes confusion. 
Spacing: Creating an Environment for Success 
In basketball, spacing is essential for effective ball movement and creating scoring opportunities. Similarly, in organizations, creating the right environment is key to managing change: 
        1.      Open Communication: Encourage open and transparent communication channels. Just as players need to communicate on the court, team members should feel comfortable sharing ideas, concerns, and feedback. 
        2.      Empowerment: Give employees the autonomy to make decisions within their areas of expertise. Empowered employees are more likely to take initiative and drive the change forward. 
        3.      Collaboration: Foster a culture of collaboration where cross-functional teams work together and build trust. Effective collaboration, much like the interplay between players in the triangle offense, leads to innovative solutions and greater overall success. 
Ball Movement: Facilitating Dynamic Interactions 
The triangle offense thrives on quick, precise passes and constant player movement, creating opportunities to exploit defensive weaknesses. In an organization, dynamic interactions and agile processes are crucial for managing change: 
        1.      Agile Processes: Implement agile methodologies that allow for flexibility and rapid adjustments. This agility enables the organization to respond swiftly to challenges and opportunities. 
        2.      Iterative Progress: Emphasize iterative progress and continuous improvement. Regularly assess the impact of changes and make necessary adjustments, similar to how players read and react to the defense in real-time. 
        3.      Cross-Functional Teams: Use cross-functional teams to drive initiatives. These teams bring diverse perspectives and expertise, enhancing the organization’s ability to innovate and adapt. 
Adaptability: Navigating Uncertainty with Confidence 
The triangle offense is not rigid; it relies on players making real-time decisions based on the defense’s actions. Similarly, organizations must be adaptable to navigate the complexities of change: 
        1.      Scenario Planning: Consider various scenarios and the need for contingencies. Being proactive helps the organization stay ahead of potential challenges. 
        2.      Resilience: Cultivate resilience within the team. Encourage a growth mindset and the ability to learn from setbacks. Resilient teams, like resilient players, can bounce back from adversity and maintain momentum. 
        3.      Leadership Flexibility: Leaders should be flexible and open to new ideas. Effective leaders, like skilled coaches, understand when to stick to the plan and when to pivot based on changing circumstances. 
Execution: Turning Strategy into Action 
The success of the triangle offense ultimately comes down to execution. In managing organizational change, executing the strategy effectively is where plans turn into results: 
        1.      Focus on Fundamentals: Ensure that everyone understands and is at least developing the fundamental skills required for change. Training and development are crucial in building competence and confidence. 
       2.      Monitor Progress: Regularly monitor progress against goals and milestones. Use data and feedback to gauge success and identify areas for improvement. 
        3.      Celebrate Wins: Recognize and celebrate achievements, no matter how small. Celebrating wins boosts morale and reinforces the positive aspects of change. 
The triangle offense’s legacy in basketball offers valuable lessons for managing change in complex organizations, regardless of industry. By establishing a strong foundation, creating the right environment, facilitating dynamic interactions, embracing adaptability, and focusing on execution, leaders can navigate the complexities of change with confidence and achieve intentional, sustainable success. Just as the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers piled up a combined eleven NBA titles using the triangle offense under Phil Jackson’s leadership, higher education institutions can reach new heights by applying these principles to their change management strategies. 



You’re welcome to contact Joe Gottlieb at or with any feedback or questions. 

(Portions of this blog were created with assistance from AI.) 




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