Football and Business – Avoiding Unforced Errors to Drive Success

Craig Apatov / Strategic Marketing Practice Leader

“He who complains about the way the ball bounces is likely the one who dropped it.”  –  Lou Holtz 

In football, unforced errors are penalties, turnovers, botched plays and missed assignments . Regardless of what you call them…they all result in missed opportunities and lost momentum that allows the opposition to gain competitive advantage.

Football can be a powerful metaphor for the world of work…particularly in highly competitive product/service categories.

Here are a few football metaphors commonly used in today’s business vernacular:

  • Blind-Sided – When a company is victimized by an unexpected competitive attack due to a “blind spot” in its strategic game plan.
  • Fumble – Occurs when a company literally “drops the ball” allowing the opposition to capitalize on the misfortune.
  • Delay of Game – When a company sees an opportunity or a threat but does not act in a timely manner and is penalized by ceding advantage to the opposition.
  • False Start – Happens when a company’s strategic marketplace execution is out of sync – where not all disciplines are on the same “snap count”.

The Peril of Unforced Errors…In Business

Unforced errors must be avoided or minimized to win in the business and sports worlds.

This requires a disciplined game plan consisting of four basic components – vision, skills, resources, and an action plan.  All four elements must be aligned and working in concert for success… or unforced errors are inevitable.


The Four Keys to Avoiding Unforced Errors in Business

1. The Value of Clear Vision 

First, companies need vision.

“Good business leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, and relentlessly drive it to completion.”  –  Jack Welch

Vision is the big picture of the playing field that is clearly defined for all stakeholders. Without it, there is the risk of being blind-sided by competitive assaults or changing circumstances.

Vision has three components – hindsight, insight and foresight.  Hindsight provides context; insight provides focus, and foresight provides perspective.It should be aspirational yet achievable with effort and determination.  It must be articulated…and not just communicated to the troops!

2. Critical Skills to Win at Business/Sports

Next, companies need skills.

“The achievements of an organization are the results of the combines effort of each individual.”  –  Vince Lombardi

Without people with the right skill sets, there is risk of “fumbling the ball”.This is caused by not  having the right people with the right competencies in the right positions.

Organizations, of course, employ people with specific skill sets. Organizations expend significant dollars to identify and recruit square pegs to fit square holes. The challenge, however, is to match these skill sets with the mission at hand.

A football team has many specialized positions – receivers, kickers, punters, linemen, quarterbacks, special teams, etc. To be successful, the team must match the right skill sets with the right position.

An effective running game, for example, requires good blocking and a fast, agile, and powerful running back.  An effective passing game requires good pass protection, sure-handed and elusive receivers, and an accurate quarterback. Too often in business, companies do not have the right players with the right skill sets on the field.

The Legendary Apple Management Bungle

A famous example occurred at Apple.  In 1983, Apple lured John Sculley, the president of PepsiCo, to be its CEO.  Apple wanted Sculley to apply his marketing skills gained at Pepsi to the personal computer market. The Apple board believed that Sculley, with his more conventional business background and considerable success at Pepsi, would give Apple an image of greater reliability and stability.

Once at Apple, however,  the management styles of Sculley and co-founder Steve Jobs clashed. Jobs was ousted by the Apple board in favor of Sculley in 1985. Sculley was ultimately forced out of Apple in 1993 as the company’s margins eroded, sales diminished, and the company’s stock price declined.

Two CEO’s, record low stock prices and crippling financial losses later,  Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997.

Simply put, Apple failed to see the right skill sets required for its CEO. They fumbled the ball.  It had disastrous consequences, until the person with the right skills returned.  It turned out that marketing carbonated beverages was not the right skill set to lead Apple.

3. Aligning Talent – Resource Allocation

Next, companies need the resources.

“The lack of money is the root of all evil.”  –  Mark Twain

Without the sufficient resources, a company suffers a “delay of game”.  The biggest threat to companies is under-resourcing a great opportunity rather than over-resourcing a lesser one.

The former is fatal while the latter is survivable.  With a lack of resources, momentum stops. Great ideas die on the vine and competitors move in to claim the strategic high ground or exploit new ideas/innovations to achieve “first mover” status.

4. The Planning Imperative

Lastly, companies need a well-thought-out and battlefield vetted action plan.

“Without committment, there are only promises and hopes… but no plans.”  – Peter Drucker

Without a clear action plan, there is the threat of false starts. The action plan is the culmination of vision, skills, and resources.  It must be concise and have defined benchmarks for success. It must be flexible and fluid empowering people to make decisions as circumstances warrant.

There are many other unforced errors in business. We call this  phenomena “business prevention” and it includes:

  • Procrastination – This refers to those who put off till tomorrow, things that needed to be done yesterday. Action is too little, too late with opportunities lost as the competitive “barbarians at the gate” threaten existing and future business.
  • Lethargy – Game plans sluggishly executed cause frustration and the eventual attrition of clients, customers, and key talent.
  • Arrogance – The offspring of the marriage of ego and power. Arrogant individuals are those that believe they have all the right answers and discount opposing views.
  • Superstition – The notion that there is a direct cause and effect between past performance and subsequent results despite evidence to the contrary.
  • Leadership Myopia – This is short-sightedness, where leaders lack “strategic corrective lenses” to see the bigger picture.

Legendary Predictions from Noteworthy Luminaries

The following are some infamous predictions of the future from leaders of the past:

“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers” – Thomas J. Watson, Chairman & CEO, IBM, 1943

“TV won’t last…people will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.” – Darryl Zanuck, 20th Century Fox, 1946.

“There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home” – Ken Olson, founder of DEC, 1977

“There will never be a bigger plane built.” – A Boeing engineer, after the first flight of a  twin engine plane that held ten people

“Everything that can be invented has been invented.” – Charles H. Duell, U.S. Office of Patents & Trademarks,  1899

Antipathy – By definition is a feeling of intense dislike. This is the case when companies have an aversion to those people and ideas who are change agents. It causes internal animosity and stifles innovation. Interestingly “ignorance means you don’t know; stupidity means you’ll never know”. Ignorant companies can learn; stupid ones cannot.

In summary, unforced errors must be avoided at all costs.  They are self-inflicted penalties to progress which cause frustration, anxiety, confusion, and an erosion of confidence in leadership.