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The challenge: You have 20 minutes to advocate for, explain, and practice a brand new way of doing an activity. After that, you will engage competitively with another group for an hour. The goal is to win.
Every year, I face this challenge at the Paul Blank Invitational Football Game (otherwise known as PBI). The PBI is an annual tradition, where alumni from my high school get together to play football on Thanksgiving. What started out modestly as a backyard game, has evolved considerably to include a live scoreboard, a DJ, professional photographer, national anthem singer, and halftime entertainment. Most importantly, the game has raised thousands of dollars over the years for a local charity.
Preparation has become quite serious too and the challenge gets harder every year we age, for obvious athletic reasons.
Frustrated by the disorganization of the play-calling, the lack of a general game plan, and limited playing opportunities, I took it upon myself to design a system that would help our team communicate quickly and simply. I spoke to friends of mine who had played football on the D1 college-level and watched YouTube videos like this one:
What I found was that teams created short-hand, coded systems that communicated a great deal of information in a short amount of time. I thought it would be best to do the same, limiting time to huddle where much time was wasted on the field, not to mention how teams would usually get delay-of-game penalties in their first few drives due to their lack of organization and having worked together as a team before.
The system I put together went like this:
We will use the same formation on every play:
- 5 offensive linemen
- 2 wide receivers on each side of the field
- 1 running back who would line up next to the quarterback
- 1 quarterback
- We would not huddle. The quarterback would call plays from the line using the following system:
- For pass plays:
- When the outside receivers heard the word “Oreo”, that would be their queue. The word to follow would tell them what type of passing route to run.
- Routes were coded by the first letter of the name of a city.
- For example: “Seattle” would mean run a slant route because the city name and the pattern name both start with the letter “s”
- When the inside receivers heard the word “Icing”, that would be their queue. The word to follow would tell them what type of passing route to run.
- To give an assignment to the running back: the quarterback would simply whisper to the running back either “block” or would tell them what kind of route to run.
- For running plays:
- Saying a word that started with the letter “R” like “Rudy” would mean a run to the right.
- Saying a word that started with the letter “M” like “Martian” would mean a run to the middle.
- Saying a word that started with the letter “L” like “Lucy” would mean a run to the left.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but using this system, we won games two years in a row by the scores of 33-20 and 54-12.
Here’s a look at the play sheet I put together for the system we created (Player Names Redacted):
Other than re-living a brief moment of schoolyard-football glory, the point of the story is that we had success because we had a simple game-plan that allowed everybody on the team to understand and participate.
As leaders, we have a responsibility to create a system, context, the environment, and processes to empower our teams to understand what we are trying to accomplish and participate in helping to reach that goal. To do that work, I have found success not in micro-managing or overly prescribing check-lists or processes designed by people who are not customer-facing.
Instead, everyone on the team, or in the organization, must truly believe that they are essential and required partners to accomplished shared organizational goals. That work can be done through simplifying the objective and empowering people to accomplish it. The framework here was “Oreo, Omaha. Icing, Pittsburgh”, but the variations of occasionally huddling or sending a receiver in motion were the way the players on the field made it their own.
The results speak for themselves.
Happy Thanksgiving and thank you for reading!
KEY TAKEAWAY: Leadership is not as simple as having a title and giving directives. Getting the whole team passionately moving towards a common goal requires giving them a simple game-plan that they can understand, contribute to, and help achieve. Leaders are responsible for creating an environment of partnership with staff to achieve large scale organizational goals.