Sports Analogy: The Program

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I’m a sucker for sports-business analogies. Back in college, I applied to a random summer job and in my cover letter, I referenced Jason Kidd (then a superstar for the Nets) as someone who inspired me to be a good employee. I pointed out Kidd’s traits as a great point guard who made his teammates better, an excellent rebounder and defender as a guard, and a player who paid attention to the small things, making impact on the game without needing to score all the points. My cover letter must have amused my prospective employer because I was invited to an interview. I don’t think it went too well (I didn’t get an offer), and that was the last time I used Jason Kidd in a cover letter.

One analogy I’ve been rolling around in my mind these days is what I call “The Program.” At Barrel, I’ve noticed that there are two tracks of activities: activities that support the short-term needs of the company and activities that build for the long-term progress of the company. The short-term activities include two primary functions of our business:

  • landing new business by developing leads and creating proposals
  • producing quality work on our client projects

These activities are self-contained in that we land a new project, complete it, and move on to the next one. There are ups and downs when doing these activities. Sometimes we lose out on a bid for a new project and sometimes we don’t produce our best work.

The long-term activities, on the other hand, are often on-going and varied. These include:

  • improving communication and knowledge share
  • creating or improving on processes that affect how we do our work
  • devising strategies to increase and expand our business development efforts
  • building or acquiring tools to improve efficiency of our operations
  • facilitating professional and leadership development opportunities for our employees
  • expanding and codifying various policies
  • enhancing our ability to retain and attract employees
  • establishing company values and defining our culture

These are activities that take time to plan and implement and they are also activities that are often hard to measure directly. However, these are also the activities that build on the backbone of the company and make it stronger, allowing the short-term activities to achieve greater levels of success.

After reading some articles on various college football teams, I began to think about a sports analogy for these activities: the football program. I imagine that when a new coach is hired by a university (or pro team or high school team) to revive a struggling program, the coach is tasked with executing both short-term and long-term activities.

For a football program, the main short-term activity is winning games. This is the most measurable activity and one that others will look to point out success or failure. But games are self-contained and they won’t always go well. Even if you’re a better team on paper, injuries, botched calls, or lucky plays may all contribute to losses. Over the course of a season or many seasons, even the best teams can falter at different points.

The success of long-term activities is what turns football programs into consistent winners. In football, I imagine these activities to include:

  • building a powerful system for recruitment and being able to land top talent year after year (you might say that landing a great recruiting class is a short-term activity that’s played in the offseason)
  • establishing an effective strength training and skills development program for players
  • implementing a focused approach that gives the team an identity (e.g. strong defense / innovative offense) and plays to the strength of its personnel
  • instilling a strong culture and belief that the team is a championship contender

I’ve thought a few times about Nick Saban and what he’s been able to do in Alabama, turning them into yearly favorites. The Crimson Tide boasts one of the best classes of recruits each year and they stick to their familiar brand of football: strong defense and mistake-free, conservative offense. That they are able to do this while losing a number of their star players to the NFL draft every year is a testament to the strength of their long-term activities.

So tying this back to how a football program is like a business: if you build for the long-term and put in place a strong foundation, your short-term activities will flourish. There will be days when your short-term activities don’t always go your way (e.g. someone gets sick and doesn’t meet a project deadline or a potential client decides to go with their cousin’s web design studio even though your firm was clearly more qualified), but with many of the long-term activities in place, you’ll put yourself in a better position to succeed in your short-term activities.

It’s easy to get caught up in the short-term activities. Like a team fired up for game day, we feel the emotional rush of finding a solution to meet a deadline or getting that phone call telling us we’ve landed the new project. These are important, and they definitely deserve our attention, but if we want to build something lasting and sustainable, we have to make a commitment to the activities that require our patience, persistence, and a long-term outlook.


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