Lessons from the 2013 NFL playoffs for companies

Here at Phacility, we're sort of big NFL fans. Sort of, in that one founder has season tickets for the 49ers already, two founders have season tickets at the new 49ers stadium for the 2014-2044 seasons, and Evan (founder three of three) has been known to say "Go local sports team!" when appropriate.

Sort of big NFL fans.

Anyway, turns out I think there's a few valuable lessons from the 2013 NFL playoffs for all companies to consider.

Passion is a force multiplier.

How did the Ravens win the Superbowl? They barely made the playoffs and by definition beat the rest of the NFL best to win the Superbowl.

I think the answer is as simple as Ray Lewis. He Believes (yes, with a capital B) it was his destiny to win the Superbowl. Moreover, Ray Lewis is an infectious leader and instills similar belief in his teammates.

Do people in your company believe or even Believe in what you do together? Do you have the "Ray Lewis" types of your organization providing infectious passion where you need it most?

There's a lot more important things about maximizing passion in your company, but they don't have much to do with the NFL. Onward.

Context and not control yields the best results.

If you haven't seen it yet, the Netflix culture deck is making the rounds again. It is where I first heard the term "context and not control." The simple idea is you give your people the information and support they need to succeed -- context -- and do not specify how they do it -- control. In practice, things are a bit trickier, but the next layer is to make sure context includes what success is, what success is not, and who gets to make the decisions at the end of the day. Please do read the deck as this summary does not give it justice.

Back to the NFL - do you know why the Patriots are "sort of" awesome offensively? Here's an amazing article which explains the play calling system the Patriots use:

The backbone of the Erhardt-Perkins system is that plays — pass plays in particular — are not organized by a route tree or by calling a single receiver's route, but by what coaches refer to as "concepts." Each play has a name, and that name conjures up an image for both the quarterback and the other players on offense. And, most importantly, the concept can be called from almost any formation or set. Who does what changes, but the theory and tactics driving the play do not. "In essence, you're running the same play," said Perkins. "You're just giving them some window-dressing to make it look different."

This is highly differentiated from other styles of play calling, where specific players are told specifically what to do. The result of other styles is clunky play calling - there's a lot of people and a lot of things they could potentially do that must be encoded in the play call - and a tendency to not fully utilize each player on the field since the play might not even include instructions for them. The system the Patriots use allows for a more dynamic offensive front, playing a huge and understated role in the Patriots having the best offense in the NFL in the regular season. And that's how come I think they are "sort of" awesome offensively - this amazing offense broke down in the playoffs against the passionate Ravens and has broken down in past years against playoff passion.

So how does your company run? Are there specific sets of instructions on how to solve problems and do things, or are people allowed to unleash their creativity to create company value, with the mundane automated or obsoleted? In the face of adversity, do the individuals in your organization continue to perform or quickly crumble like a Patriot being chased by Ray Lewis?

Constantly upgrade talent at every position.

Who the heck is Colin Kaepernick?

I thought this at the beginning of the season this year. I must admit 2012 is my first year "really" being a 49ers fan, following things as closely as I follow my other team, the Patriots. Turns out this is Kaepernick's second year in the league and he was drafted by coach Jim Harbaugh.

Kaepernick got his chance this season, getting to start in a game after Alex Smith, the previous quarterback, was injured. When Smith was healthy enough to return, coach Harbaugh made the decision to keep Kaepernick as starting QB. In my opinion, the reasoning coach Harbaugh provided was always sufficiently vague as to play politics and hedge his bets if Kaepernick proved a bad substitute. However, I did not see anything in the game tape that indicated Kaepernick was particularly better than Smith.

Wow, was I wrong. In his first NFL playoff game, Colin Kaepernick set the record for most rushing yards by a QB ever. Turns out that he's super fast and can throw the ball 59 miles per hour. (Note that last link is funny as its old and it provides lots of statistical analysis saying Kaepernick will be a bust. Whoops.) He's been the hero a few times already, and the future looks bright for the 49ers under his leadership.

My small critique of coach Harbaugh is he should have started Kaepernick at the beginning of the season. Harbaugh knew this about his freakish abilities - I did not. Recall also that Harbaugh drafted Kaepernick while he still had Smith, indicating to some degree he was at least willing to start Kaepernick instead of Smith at some point. Basically, I think Harbaugh played some politics with Smith, the 49ers, the fans, and the press, and thus did not make the best decision about which quarterback to start until the injury made it easy politically. Its possible that the 49ers would have had a better season and won the Superbowl if Colin Kaepernick got to start the full season. Note I think of Smith as a game manager, so to me it was pretty clear that you weren't going backwards and had so much upwards potential with Kaepernick.

These decisions are tricky in a company. I actually recommend you have more of a Harbaugh-in-practice-style in your own organization -- it is likely that your "Alex Smith" can keep on taking your team to the NFC championship, while your "Colin Kaepernick" can do something equally or even more awesome on another team or project. You should like Harbaugh avoid being specific in public about what specific qualities make that person your decision for the role; save those conversations for smaller, more intimate groups directly impacted by your decision. Overall, competition and role changes in your company don't necessarily have to result in someone good sitting on the bench, waiting to be traded. Everyone can and should win.

That said, you still have to make sure to put the right people in the right roles. Tough decisions should be decided by what's best for the company. Moreover, for the longevity of your company, you should make sure individuals feel fresh in their roles and projects, and feel they have ample room to grow. Talented individuals who provide value to the company should routinely "move on" within the company to maximize that value.

Its also important to fire people who were hiring mistakes or perhaps no longer have a role in the organization. While these incidences should be rare, correcting them AND using them to improve hiring and management are worth your time to do as early as possible.


The NFL is awesome. Hopefully these insights about the NFL and how they pertain to companies can prove useful to you. If not, perhaps consider adding an office linebacker program...? That's probably not a bad idea.

Written by btrahan on Feb 5 2013, 11:22 PM.
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