How Sports and Business Relate

Read for twelve minutes…in a row? I know, unheard of in this day and age. I know it’s seldom done these days, but I’m asking. I am much too ugly for video, so writing is my format and I got a little long on this one. I will make you a deal. If the article is really bad, I will refund 100% of the purchase price for reading it. As an added bonus, if you feel the 12 minutes was completely wasted, I will send you a certificate good for 12 minutes being added to your time on earth at no additional charge. This wonderful offer is good for life or whenever you stop reading this article, whichever comes first. See that, no risk, all reward.

Recently I was talking to a person in a leadership role at their firm. They were frustrated neither they, nor their company, could operate in a manner to achieve the results they desired. The company handles a needed product, possesses a stable inventory supply structure, has fairly good demographics for their area, and there is a structured established payment system. I was asked for my thoughts which I was happy to give. We talked about nothing proprietary as the subjects were general in nature and related to policy and procedure, methods used, high priority short term objectives, personnel management, and other operational challenges you would expect. I promised to give it some thought and give my opinion in a later conversation. Since no one likes hearing me drone on about business, especially my wife, I decided to write this article as the start of our second conversation.

While in no way scientific, I also rounded out my education on the company by further checking them out on the employment website ‘Glassdoor’ When I checked, the company’s rating by current and past employees was abysmal at a 2.2 average out 5 Stars. I suspect quality candidates stop considering applying to companies when the rating nears 3 as this would stop me from applying. While there were some good reviews, the majority of nationwide reviewers (that didn’t hate someone specific like the Commercial Information Officer) also cited lack of training, toxic environment, insufficient resources, lack of clear direction, much too numbers driven, lack of controls, and similar. I also checked the reviews on the better Business Bureau ( which the company carried an equally disappointing ‘01 Star of 5 Stars, and Yelp ( which was similar at 1.5 Stars of 5. While not confirmed completely due to my limited sampling, on the surface it appeared neither our company’s employees nor customers are very happy. After a while I was beginning to get a good picture in my head of their organization. Well enough of a picture to feel like I was a part of the team and also feel their frustration. All of the symptoms were laid before me; it was time to identify the disease.   After much consideration I decided the company had a ‘football problem’.

I like professional sports. Since professional American style football is one of the most popular sports in the USA and the city I live in has a NFL team (The Jacksonville Jaguars), I am attracted to professional American style football. I am not alone in my affection for sports. Huge amounts of money and resources are spent on professional sports. It doesn’t seem reasonable to exert as much effort and direct as much money to sports when there are so many seemingly more worthy other endeavors. Although I wouldn’t count on professional sports being abandoned any time soon.

Professional sports are so popular due to our basic instinctual tribal natures. In tracing our heritage, no matter who we are, if we trace back far enough our ancestors belonged to a tribe. Look back a little further, even back to prehistoric times, and it was likely a war like and violent tribe. I would venture a guess early tribal battles were related to food, shelter, and boundaries. It’s the same reason your alpha dog is A-Okay with the world until someone not in their pack comes in your pet’s territory or eyes their food. It is basic survival instinct. For us two legged tribal members it could not have been much different.

Fast forward through time and the tribal warfare was still alive and well centuries later, but the reasons for it were changing. As humans became less nomadic, more agriculturally oriented, and better at sourcing sustainable food supplies in one location, they less and less had to fight to eat. Throughout the world tribal societies were changing. The changes may have been at different times in different places in the world, but the changes were clear. During this time tribes began to stop fighting to survive and started fighting to fight.

This mini history of sports digression does hold a practical purpose and won’t go on much longer, I promise. Stop eyeing a paragraph down the page to jump to. If you didn’t know this small bit of historical trivia you get to learn something new. If you already know the origins of sports, reading it again will remind you to pull this historical talking point out at parties when someone is bashing your favorite team or the idiocy of your allegiance to sports.

Okay, eyes here. —>> Ultimately more and more tribal warfare became battles for superiority and one-upmanship over the tribe next door. Human kind, while not fully civilized, certainly weren’t stupid for the time in history they were in. At some point our ancestors realized tribal battles over bragging rights that killed people was too high of a price to pay. That’s not to say blood shed ended, but in many instances neighboring tribes did begin to have physical contests instead of bloody battles. The contests were still very serious stuff. Often contest participants ceremonially prepared as they would for a bloody battle.

The tribal contests were, for the most part, instinctual superiority contests. Most importantly large amounts of people did not get killed as they did in real tribal warfare. Moreover, the contests encouraged tribes to create tactics not related to killing people, yes…just like in business, in pursuing their contest objectives… Just a little further keep reading, you are doing great…. As the tribe members cheered on their participant, each person in the tribe could take pride in the victory over the tribe next door. This change in tribal warfare was the first molecule of organized sports we know today. Many years later sports are still helping us not to beat the feathers out of each other for our tribal pride. If anything, sports is a combination of tactics, team work, execution, and winning. Ever wonder why business moguls often end up owning sports teams and powerful celebrities are rabid fans occupying game seats most of us can’t afford? It’s about the love of pursuing perfect execution and the art of winning. For heaven’s sake, if that doesn’t scream business I don’t know what does. I told you it would be worth it.

Considering the instinctual origin of sports and the refinement of the games over the centuries, it’s no surprise sports finds its way into our daily lives. This goes double for business. There is no shortage of sports analogies in our business lives. Sayings such as ‘Kate knocked that presentation out of the park.’, or ‘Wayne had a slam dunk with his sale.’ or ‘Closing the deal Sophia did an ‘end around’ on their objections.’ are not uncommon in business. We identify with sports on a granular level and can sometimes even use sports in business to learn a thing or two.

For those of you that are not sports fans or history buffs, I am proud of you. You have made it to the point I am beginning to segue back to our subject company’s difficulties, although I am not totally done with sports just yet. Now keep reading, you only have 5 minutes left. Eyes here —>> At the start of each and every season coaches gather their players to access talent and begin the process of training camp. The primary focus of training camp is to raise the individual skills and execution level of each player in their position and meld the skills of each player into an operational team. Personal best and team best is often the mantra. The nature of sports is that responsibilities are high and excuses are low. This philosophy permeates through training, practices, and every game.

No matter what sport you follow if any, can you imagine if the coach instead started the sport’s season mandating how many points the team was going to score for each game as the focus? This kind of logic is the company’s first issue; they are pushing the horse with the cart. This company, like many companies, is a numbers driven company. There’s nothing wrong with that. ‘Numbers’ being a euphemism for ‘Money’, and making money being the ultimate goal of for profit companies, it makes sense. It’s just that the goal of money sounds in some way dirty so the words ‘Numbers’ is plugged in instead.

Our subject company is attempting to have numbers requirements drive productivity and efficiencies and this model is exactly backwards. As in the earlier example of a football team’s coach focusing primary energy on demanding a specific number of points scored as a requirement, the philosophy does not focus on the efficiencies that will enable the team to do so. This leaves the team members working hard, but in less than ideal efficiency or productivity. When the number demands become more aggressive, the team works harder at being inefficient.

If we flip the script for our company and train for, and expect, efficient process and execution as football coaches do, the numbers will improve as a byproduct and employees will be empowered. It’s hard to argue if every person and department are doing their job at an exceptional level, the numbers will not improve as a result. As an added bonus, overall customer service improvement will be realized and net profit margins will benefit from pursuing excellence rather than numbers. Will the change be easy? No, attaining anything of value seldom is. There will be resistance from select frontline team members and throughout some management. Although the effort will be worth it as the organization realizes they are not working any harder, but are truly better at their positions individually and as a team.

After all the training, execution practice, and instruction, when a football team plays a game they play to win. Each game plan, right down to each play, is designed and executed to succeed. This is one of the elements that make sports as exciting as they are and often become offensive shootouts. However, when there is one team well ahead on points there is a tried and true technique often used later in a football game. The technique is playing conservatively and protecting the ball. This modus operandi’s goal is not to produce a large amount of points; the objective is to reduce mistakes, risk, and opportunities for the other team to get the ball. In football games it is displayed though an increase in running plays, throwing short safe passes, and focus on not turning the ball over. This method depends on defensive ball play to stop the other team from scoring more points than the built up lead before the clock runs out. Very often the technique works, less often it does not.

This type of conservative play is the next area our company can improve. They are using the conservative ball technique as their model and they are not playing to win. In the face of sagging numbers the management of the company appears to be looking in the wrong direction. Instead of giving heed to the disease of poor execution, they are treating the symptom of lack luster income performance by cutting budgets and avoiding change aka: playing conservatively. I did say football coaches use the tactic. Although if you recall, I didn’t say run your organization like a sports team, I stated we can learn a thing or two from sports.

The reason playing ‘conservative ball’ in business is seldom the best ‘game plan’ in the face of needing improvement is there’s no clock to run out in business. With a few exceptions, business is an open ended game which the only clock running out is the ‘going out of business’ clock. It can be said each revenue month has its’ own clock, but that’s more of a ‘play clock’. To view the monthly clock as the game clock is being short sighted. By shrinking effort and resources to treat the disease of poor performance, the company is effectively eroding their own ability to improve their game. In doing so the ultimate result is playing conservative ball with no offensive push. In that case there is no other reasonable expectation other than a hard fought battle to an eventual loss.

With the exception of the NFL’s New England patriots, every so often teams go into what’s called ‘rebuilding’. Rebuilding is a period that the team as a whole has reached, and then surpassed, its maturity to operate effectively. Playing personnel, coaching staff, and sometimes executive management, gets old, stale, or off target. Rebuilding is the time a team takes to reinvent itself and re-staff where needed to fit their objectives. In a company’s case this period is called ‘reorganization’. The difference in the two is football team ownership and fans expect two, or sometimes three, losing seasons while the team is being rebuilt. In business the luxury of an acceptable losing time period can be measured in minutes.

In our company’s instance it’s clear there is a ‘rebuild’ needed. It’s even plausible to believe upper management is questioning the logic of expending more resources to save what they see as a sinking ship when looking at poorly performing facilities. This would be blaming the bricks and mortar and the location personnel rather than the true culprit of the system itself. Dissolving and recreating an organization only has successful results if the new effort is built with different bricks. An operation drifting off into a ditch is seldom the result of lower, and sometimes middle, management’s miss-steps. It is typically a result of an overall corporate culture that allowed it to happen in the first place. Using the same methods and philosophies to rebuild, which typically come from upper management, will likely produce the same results. If I buy a new home because my current home is dirty and change nothing else, I will be destined to live in a dirty home again.

Changing thought process and company culture at higher levels is often more economical and less painful than a clean sweep. After all, when a NFL team rebuilds, they seldom bulldoze the stadium and fire the equipment manager, the travel coordinator, and the concession manager. Why would they? Those positions don’t set the mindset and tone for the team. But you can bet the president of team operations, general manager, and the head coach will all change if philosophies don’t. As in sports it is in business, playing not to lose is not the same as playing to win. True winning starts with good training, attention to basic mechanics, excellent execution at all levels, and the will to not accept less from our peers or ourselves.