Raised by two 'Bama graduates, my heart broke a little last night, watching LSU impressively roll back the Tide. (Hats off to the Tigers in a well-deserved victory with THE MOST ELEGANT play I have EVER witnessed in football and possibly any sport. Claude Edwards-Helaire tippy-toed a catch on the most elegant and precise pass you can imagine from quarterback extraordinaire Joe Burrow. First flying, airborne, outside of the sideline, Helaire impossibly stretched every molecule of his body and placed his toes, like a ballerina landing, just inside the sideline as he made the catch. This maneuver - which you simply MUST see in slow-motion from five angles to fully appreciate - put LSU within a yard of Bama's end zone, where the Tigers then delivered a touchdown).
But I digress.
In American football, teams invest millions of dollars in the development of the playbooks and in the rehearsing and perfecting of the plays. The best teams invest at least as much - and importantly, first - in the players.
In the business world, "process" is the playbook and the players are your people.
I'll often hear leaders speak of importance of three factors that affect organizational performance: people, process, and technology. Here's what I never hear: Recognition that this isn’t just a list. It’s a sequence.
Without people capable of executing - and smartly improvising when needed - on the process when and where it really counts, you won’t have a high-functioning process – or playbook – however elegant the plays may be. (Likewise, investing in technology before you understand and have optimized the processes you aim to automate is foolhardy. You have just purchased yourself a problem as the only thing worse than not automating, is automating a bad process).
Organizations often make the mistake of investing first in the latter two, without looking close enough first at the players on the team. They assume (or perhaps hope) the problem is the process, or the “playbook” in football - and fail to look closely enough at the individual people whose decisions and actions will most critically influence success.
I get it. Humans are messy, complicated creatures and it's natural to be tempted to tinker with the linear, unemotional luxuries of process and hope for a better outcome. But here's the inescapable truth: The playbook is only as good as the people executing the plays.
Success with even the best playbook requires people who are:
Wired to succeed in the specific role they may need to play in it
Skilled to execute the plays
Capable of applying the skills when required, and importantly under pressure
Let's unpack this.
In football, the player who will excel in a quarterback role is wired differently than the player who will excel as a running back or a kicker. It has nothing to do with intelligence, experience or even skills training. The roles require entirely different models for processing information, making decisions and taking action - with the quarterback role demanding the ability to make the right decisions in a matter of seconds.
This is why at AHA Insight, we urge organizations seeking to truly improve organizational performance to take a hard look at the natural wiring of the people they are expecting to perform certain roles. Assessments such as the Kolbe A or Profile XT can help you (and your players) get clear on their natural wiring for taking action to see what role(s) may naturally be a best fit for them. Sometimes it can be as simple as changing people up to get dramatically better natural fits on an existing team. Sometimes you simply need different people on the team or in key roles.
In football, teams have specialized coaching for the various specialized functions of defense, offense, kicking, etc. While head coaches are overseeing overall strategy, these 'special teams' coaches drill in to perfect specialized skills required in these roles. With players who have the natural aptitude and instincts for success in specific roles, this is a crucial next layer of investment that pays off.
In business, this is where training comes in. I'll often hear people say, "I'm looking for the right person - I can train them later to do the job." This is often wise: When a person is naturally wired in a way to be a good fit for the demands of the role they are being asked to play, and they are willing and desiring to learn, training is a great next-level investment.
One of the greatest mistakes I see technical organizations make every day is promoting a highly talented technologist or subject matter expert in a management role into the executive ranks where the role demands very different capacities from that individual. The famous quote "what got you here won't get you there" plays out in spades as the person may struggle mightily to adapt to the demands of this new, entirely different role.
Even if they are wired to be a great fit, they may simply lack needed skills. This is an easy fix to invest in training to expose them to and help them acquire the very different competencies they will need to use every day in order to succeed. For example, as a manager, they were required to oversee and maybe improve efficiency and effectiveness with well-defined processes and procedures. As a leader, they are now expected to visualize the future (be strategic); make decisions under conditions of uncertainty (cope with ambiguity); negotiate and attain consensus among parties with differing agendas (and often sustain that over time).
These are radically different competencies and skills that many newly-promoted leaders have never been prepared for. Even if they are naturally wired for success in the role, they also need to be skilled up in those areas. But while necessary, even this is not sufficient for results at the highest levels of performance.
Here’s the catch: most training is done in a laboratory environment, or what we at AHA Insight call a “closed-circuit” environment. This is a great, and even ideal, place to start for learning the skill, but it is not sufficient for success. Like learning to drive a car, you may learn in a “closed circuit” environment of a quiet parking lot, but at some point, you have to get out there and drive in the street.
Your skills are put to the test when faced with structured, predictable inputs such as traffic systems; and unstructured, unpredictable variables such as the actions of other drivers. Suddenly, you are faced with making a dizzying array of decisions, often in rapid succession, than you had ever faced when reading you that you need to yield when turning left on a green light; or learning to put your manual transmission gearshift from first to second gear when stopped on a hill, with traffic coming from behind you.
Which brings us to the next layer, which is the #1 thing overlooked by many organizations when building high-performance leaders and teams:
Capable of executing the skills in the moment:
Natural wiring and even the best skills do not guarantee results if the individual player is unable to apply them effectively and get results when it counts. This is what separates the good from the great. It makes the greatest difference between success and failure – and it’s the most often overlooked aspect of team performance.
Players must be conditioned to apply their skills on the field – under pressure, in the midst of the real-time dynamics of other people’s decisions and actions. They must hone their ability to apply their skills under scores of scenarios and ideally, under conditions of pressure and uncertainty. This is why experience is so valuable and should be probed extensively in the hiring and screening process.
Here are three pitfalls to avoid in developing your players:
1. Failing to invest enough in the individual players.
Investments in team trainings often fall short because they treat the team as a generic unit. Training should always acknowledge and include attention to the specific roles of individual key players. Too often in training environments, the specific demands and interdependent relationships between key roles is not addressed in relevant scenarios. This is why at AHA Insight, we don't use canned case studies. We work with your teams both before and after training, and use real-world challenges your leaders and teams are facing right now, or very soon.
2. Assuming training alone will equip your players for success on the field.
It is not enough to simply send your leaders to the week-long training program and assume they are now equipped to deliver results. You must continually develop and hone their ability as individual leaders, and as part of a team, to exercise judgement and decision-making capacities in the moment, when it counts. Expose your people to the simulated demands of what they are likely to experience.
Pay particular attention to both “high-likelihood, lower-stakes” scenarios they are likely to encounter frequently, as well as “low-likelihood, high-stakes scenarios,” that while rare, could incur tremendous cost if not executed well. Fortunately, in business you rarely have seconds to make decisions, and decisions are rarely irreversible. Invest in real-time coaching for key players, to help them make the most of high-stakes negotiations, relationships and course correction opportunities that may be required.
3. Failing to systematize continual learning and improvement.
While every situation is different, organizational leaders - like championship football teams - face many similar kinds of situations that can be anticipated, codified in a playbook, rehearsed and improved upon over time.
Conduct post-event debriefs as part of your standard practice and use these to both improve the playbook, and your team's abilities to execute key plays. In the emergency management world, we conduct “hotwashes” (in the immediate aftermath), “warm washes” (a week or two later) and “cold washes” (one to three months later). Different insights emerge as time passes from the event. Have your team take the time to consciously unpack and understand the dynamics of critical events or moments - both when things go well and when they don’t. To use a football analogy, review the game tape.
Take last night’s Alabama-LSU game. Alabama is behemoth with a legendary coach (Nick Saban) and some of the most talented, skilled players on the market. Yet, their star quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has been largely out of high-level competition play while recovering from injuries. Tua is a phenomenal talent, wired and skilled for success. He did not lose his “skill” while recovering from this injury.
His recovery practices however were in a closed-circuit, ‘controlled’ environment - and he did lose his in-the-moment edge. By not being exposed to the demands of the high-level dynamic play Alabama would face with LSU, Tua lost the critical edge needed to pull out a win:
He dropped the ball
He missed a crucial opportunity to run the ball down an open center space, costing Alabama the chance to get inside the red-zone
Hesitating, he lost precious seconds making critical decisions that cost him critical scoring opportunities as the opponents had more time to swarm key receivers.
In contrast, LSU’s Joe Burrow and Clyde Edwards-Helaire were ready.
Alabama didn't just lose a game last night. They jeopardized their chances to play in the National Championship. A significant portion of the investments made in the entire season are now at risk. Likewise, in your business, you need to be aware of what is at stake. When the stakes are high, and the world is watching, your people need to be ready and capable when the moment presents to pull off a victory (See my posts on rocking the red-zone).
Tua will be back and there is no doubt Coach Saban will be aggressively preparing him with the high-intensity ‘game style’ training I’m referring to between now and the next match-up to reignite his instincts and sharpen his in-the-moment decision-making edge. At this level of play, all of teams in the top five teams have arguably equal talent (players naturally wired with innate aptitude for the roles they are being asked to play) and equal skill. While Alabama's defense was also not where it needed to be, there is agreement that Tua's mistakes may have been the most decisive factors that cost them the game.
LSU won last night both because of the quality of the teamwork overall on both offense and defense - and its individual leaders on whom the teamwork in the moment depends -- namely Burrow and Helaire -- who made and executed better decisions on the field of play.
Before you invest to perfect your playbook, invest in people who are capable to execute on it. And then, get out of the way. As we witnessed last night on both sides, when people are empowered to be fully them - they will astonish and create magic far beyond anything you could ever think up or document in a playbook.