Why March Madness Is All About Agility

Forget the top seed. The team with a key skill set usually wins the NCAA basketball tourney.

In a shifting economy and corporate world, agility has become a key predictor of success. Yet studies show only a fraction of the global workforce is considered highly agile. In this regular column, Michael Distefano, chief marketing officer and president of the Korn Ferry Institute, will explore the concept of agility: who has it, who doesn’t, and what companies can do to mold it.

To those of us fans who live and die on the results, it’s hard to believe that some people aren’t familiar with how important a sporting event the NCAA tournament has become. We call it “March Madness” of course, and for good reason.

Played out over a hypnotic three-week period, the event is so big in America that productivity in U.S. offices declines as the 68-team field winnows itself down to the Final Four—and then crowns the eventual champion on April 3. Who could forget last year’s final, when Villanova bested North Carolina 77–74 on a buzzer-beating three-point shot by forward Kris Jenkins?

Villanova’s last-second victory was notable for another reason: It marked the 10th time since 2004 that a team other than the No. 1 overall seed won the tournament. Think about it—in the 13 years that the NCAA tournament has featured a No. 1 overall seed, that team has gone on to win the title only three times. (Prior to 2004 there was no official No. 1 seed, but if you went by the Associated Press’s top-ranked team at the end of the year the numbers are even worse: That team has won the championship only four times since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985.) Based on these statistics, the chances of Villanova, this year’s overall No 1 seed, repeating were pretty slim even before the team lost to Wisconsin in the Round of 32.

What these statistics tell us is that the winner of the NCAA tournament rarely is the best team in the field. Rather, in my opinion, it is the team that can prove the most agile over the three-week basket brawl that frequently emerges victorious. Sportcasters like to tell us the team that gets “hot” or goes “on a run” or is “peaking at the right time” are the ones that carry that momentum through the six games needed to win the title.

But those clichés are just euphemisms for agility. NCAA tournament winners share many of the same characteristics Korn Ferry identified for learning agile businesses. They are set up to move fast in decision-making and execution, and to rapidly adapt to environmental changes. They are streamlined to optimize fluid collaboration, take risks, iterate quickly and deliver results. No fewer than five of the seven different learning agile personalities Korn Ferry profiled can be found on a given NCAA champion basketball team: Problem Solvers (coach); Energizers (team captains); Diplomats (teammates who keep cool under pressure); Pillars (the steady and consistent contributors); and Champions (the clutch players). Moreover, in business, learning agility is one of the strongest predictors of performance and promotability in employees. The same can be said of basketball players as their teams graduate through the tournament rounds.

So as you stream games over the next three weeks and watch the top seed inevitably lose in an upset and the Cinderella team advance through your bracket, remember that sometimes talent is no match for agility.