Sometime in the near future, I’ll be publishing a deeper dive on youth sports, how programs operate, the politics, and more. But, for now, I want to focus on an interesting parallel between success in youth sports and success in the office.
My son, John (11), and daughter, Cora (13) have been playing sports since they were both 4. I’ve seen, what feels like, a million basketball and soccer games. I also grew up playing sports and played well into college. What’s very clear is that the winning teams do succeed because of:
- Tactics: Did the coaches put in place a winning game plan?
- Personnel: Were the right people playing in the right positions?
- Quality of Play/Effort: Did the players perform?
For the most part, I’ve avoided coaching my kids’ teams. As I’ve written about before, being coached by my dad was a tough pill to swallow. On occasion, I’ve filled in, and once I was an assistant coach. That one year as an assistant validated that tactics, personnel, and quality of play/effort are the 3 critical elements that drive a winning team.
These same 3 areas make all the difference in the office as well. We simply tend to label them differently. For example, tactics are often considered strategy. And the quality of effort is often called execution.
What’s fascinated me and inspired this post is how different the priority order of impact is for different sports and office/work environments. For example, in basketball, a single truly dominant player can trump tactics and the quality of play. Or, as my dad used to say, “Son, you can’t coach height.” I remember a basketball game when Cora was about 8 years old where they had a player that was a good 2 feet taller than the next player, and ~50 pounds heavier. Regardless of the tactics, or how hard the team played, there was simply nothing you could do about this player. She was unguardable.
Conversely, even a single dominant player on a futbol or football field can be completely stifled by tactics. This happens all too often in futbol, when managers employ tactics designed to “park the bus“.
When you step out of sports, youth, professional, or otherwise, and look at companies, things get even more complicated. The best “personnel”, could be trumped by a great set of tactics/strategy and vice versa. For example, see Snapchat vs. Facebook. Snapchat is routinely applauded for having brilliant product strategies, that are often quickly copied by Facebook and then scaled. In this instance, Snapchat might have a great strategy and the best people, but Facebook’s tactics of simply copying Snapchat’s ideas and then scaling them trumps Snapchat’s approach.
Additionally, few people would challenge the notion that at the time, Blackberry had some of the best and brightest engineers and a tremendous product. But, Apple’s strategy of making the phone a phone, an iPod, and an internet device was bold and ultimately, won them the day.
You can chase yourself in circles trying to formulate the perfect order or ratio of these 3 categories. If forced to rank or ratio these 3 categories, it would be:
- Tactics (50%)
- Personnel (30%)
- Quality of Play/Effort (20%)
But, here’s the thing I’ve come to realize after leading teams and developing organizations for the past 10+ years – you can’t blanketly apply a model consistently and to every scenario. For example, if you’re a mature organization, with the capital flexibility to make a mistake, you can afford to prioritize getting the “best” people, while you figure out the best strategy/tactics. But, if you’re in growth mode in a competitive category, tactics, and execution make a world of difference.
When Walmart was at the very beginning of developing its digital and e-commerce capabilities, it was clear they lacked the personnel and the quality of play/execution mastery needed to win. So, what did they do? They grew through a number of smart acqui-hires. Kosmix was the first big one, with Jet.com being the most recent significant acquisition. Their ability to constantly juggle the order of these 3 categories, over time, based on the environment is one of the major reasons they’ve been so successful.
Keep a watchful eye on the operating environment, so that you can adjust the priority order and emphasis of strategy, people, and execution is what top organizations do. And, yes, even when those organizations are sports teams! We’re seeing this play out during the pandemic, specifically in the restaurant world. The best chefs, at top restaurants, where the dish by dish execution was second to none are struggling as other eateries are changing their tactics to adjust to the environment.
David Chang, the restauranteur behind Momofuku, amongst others nailed the intersection of sports and business, as it relates to strategy, people, and execution in an interview with Bloomberg.
BG: Your thoughts about the difficulty of it all — I imagine they’ve been amplified by the coronavirus pandemic?
DC: Yeah, absolutely.
BG: Will young chefs now have to find a very different path, because of the way you came up is no longer possible?
DC: Well, we all have to pivot. We can’t do what we did before, because what we were doing before wasn’t working that well. A lot of chefs are asking themselves very serious questions, because they signed up to express themselves through food in a way that’s no longer possible. Dave Beran is a chef in Los Angeles and he just closed down Dialogue, one of the most intimate, best restaurants in the country, an expression of himself. He trained his entire life to do that, and that no longer exists. There’s no guarantee that comes back.
I’d be lying, straight lying, if I said I have the answers. But before we start asking the questions [about how to cope with the crisis], we need to ask what was working and what wasn’t working before, so we don’t repeat the same mistakes if and when we’re going to start over again. If you have a three-Michelin-star restaurant and you’ve had to close down, would you reopen the same restaurant?
I’m just trying to figure a better analogy. Do you watch any sports?
BG: I’m a soccer person.
DC: Alright. Let’s just say there’s no more television footage of Chelsea, or any Premier League club. That’s going to have a dramatic impact on sponsorships. And that changes the players’ salaries and the club revenues. Everything has to be recalibrated. It doesn’t take away the people’s love for the game but players ask themselves, “Can I make a career?”
And that’s where we’re at.
It’s not just the player. Say you’re the owner of the franchise: You always wanted to own a soccer team, and now you can own it but you’re not going to have the guaranteed revenue. There might be new ways to raise revenue, but you don’t know. That’s where we’re at: we just don’t know.
I’m not sure there’s more I can add to that fantastic exchange. Sun Tzu famously said, “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” Over the years that philosophy was overtaken by Peter Drucker’s, the famed management consultant’s, quote, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. I think we’re at a point where agility and adaptability are the driving forces to success. How you balance and emphasize strategy, talent, and execution is what will drive wins.