Organizations used to spend weeks, even months, developing multi-year plans that went deep on details about strategies, resource requirements, talent recruitment and more. Annual budgets were drawn from those strategic plans, setting out the milestones and measures that would be used to define goals and incentives for a set 12- month period.
After navigating the ever-changing milestones associated with navigating COVID-19, those old planning paradigms seem positively quaint.
Organizations do need to have planning frameworks, of course: deciding how to deploy both human and financial resources is dependent on making choices that are based on determining where the organization is trying to go. But the dynamic nature of our current organizational lives has me thinking about how to adapt our planning processes for the ever-increasing speed of change we are experiencing. And it has me thinking about what we can learn from professional football, in particular.
My dad was a football coach and two of my brothers were quarterbacks, so I grew up around the discipline of preparing with detailed plans but also being ready to improvise on the field. Huddles are the place where the play is called: something they practiced over and over again and chosen for the moment because it is an opportunity to take optimal advantage of the skills and talents of your team at that point in the game, that place on the field.
But then the huddle breaks and the team gets positioned at the line of scrimmage…and so does the opposition. This is where real leadership happens: you can see the players assessing the yardage in front of them, pointing to what they want teammates to note, barking out code words that dynamically change their plans.
I’ve had the opportunity to talk to football players who were on teams with leaders like Aaron Rogers, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. They talk about the capacity of those athlete/leaders to dynamically read the field, assess the readiness of their colleagues to adapt, and call audibles to change the whole team’s understanding of the priorities for the next moment. It doesn’t always work – because the leaders on the other side of the ball are doing adjustments of their own (with leaders like John Randle, Jalen Ramsey and Mike Singletary). But the magic of watching a disciplined group of professionals adapt instantaneously based on a few words is impressive in and of itself – and of course, when it works and the offense breaks through, it creates the sense that anything is possible. Or when the defense correctly reads the intention of the audible and adapts – it is a powerful reminder of the capacity of a team of people to accomplish a shared goal.
As our businesses adapt to the speed of disruption and innovation that seems to be our inevitable future, spending a few Sunday afternoons watching the genius of what happens at the line of scrimmage may be a very valuable investment in lessons in leadership.
It is important to note that having the capacity do that real-time assessment and re-ordering of priorities is only part of the challenge. Building the confidence and trust across the team is also essential: assurance that when the audible is called, everyone knows what it means, what they need to do and why. High-stakes leadership communications. Go team.