What Can Your Business Learn From Football?

I’m a huge football fan. Which means this time of year I’m a pretty happy guy. There are many things to love about football. Everything from the tension, to the excitement, to the athleticism. Even fantasy football is awesome. But one of the things I love most is just how much you can learn about running a business from watching football.

At the beginning of this year’s NFL season I tweeted, “until the Steelers can fix their offensive line problems, they aren’t a contender.”

Time will tell if I’m right.  But I’ve watched enough football to know that a team can’t be perfectly balanced.  Not in the age of salary caps. But a team does have to have to avoid obvious, glaring flaws.  The Steelers (as much as I love them) for the last 3 years have had a glaring flaw.  It’s their offensive line.

Try Harder

Sometimes the way to fix a problem is to try harder.  It’s about getting new systems, new people, or new products to market.  Maybe the reason your struggling is because you just aren’t good enough.  And if you can fix that problem, you’ll be competitive.  In the Steelers case, the solution would be to draft better.  If the offensive line isn’t strong enough, draft better, stronger, younger, or faster players.

Be Flexible

Everyone has problems.  Sometimes you can control them, sometimes they are unstoppable.  Your delivery truck wrecks, a ship sinks, taking with it all your product.  Kinko’s burns down minutes before you are to pick up copies of your latest presentation.  In the Steelers case, they have drafted better.  They’ve spent a lot of money and high draft picks on new offensive line players only to watch them go down with injury after injury.  Maybe it’s bad luck. Maybe it’s karma (or as I like to call it, field turf.)  Whatever the reason, sometimes trying harder isn’t going to work.  Despite your best plans, everything fell apart. If that’s the case, then it’s time to be flexible.  Look at rotating in new employees.  Move a manager from a strong division to a weak division.  Look at changing the roles of employees (or switching up projects).  If you can’t bring in something new, then find a way to use what you have.

Flexibility Only Goes So Far

The Steelers have a saying, “next man up.”  It just means if one player goes down, the next one steps up to fill the shoes.  This is great, as long as the players are at the same level.  But once the drop-off in talent is significant, no amount of clever managing or leadership will overcome a skill gap.  The same is true of your team.  If you aren’t replacing or retaining high quality employees, your management skill will always have a limit.

Connecting with Fans

At this point, everything you’ve tried has failed.  This is why it’s so important to connect with your fans (or customers.)  The Steelers have spent decades building brand loyalty.  One or two seasons isn’t going to destroy their billion dollar empire.  But for teams that haven’t cultivated that same loyalty, a bad game or a bad season can destroy them (see Bengals, Cincinnati.)  Have you cultivated relationships with your customers?  Or do you treat customers as disposable revenue sources?  It’s pretty obvious which company survives here.

A Winning Formula?

At the end of the day, you may or may not win your version of the Super Bowl.  Sometimes the setbacks are just too much to overcome.  It’s in times like that where you have to ask yourself, are we setting ourselves up to make a run next year?  Or are we simply doing the same thing?  If you aren’t making a choice to be a winner, don’t be surprised when you lose.

Photo credit: Library of Congress

About Eric Barrett

Eric Barrett is an organizational psychologist who specializes in connecting the dots of work, life, and meaning. He has worked as an organizational psychologist for over a decade, and is most recently working on developing social media guidelines for a real estate company. He also teaches psychology at Xavier University. In his spare time he… wait, who are we kidding… he has no spare time. You can follow him on Twitter @MeaningToWork or his blog at Meaning to Work.