What Can Sports Teach Us About Business Strategy?

American football is a furious game of strategy that you can take many business lessons away from.
Author of Slingshot: Re-Imagine Your Business, Re-, Slingshot Living
December 21, 2011

One arena with rich parallels to business strategy is the world of sports. For example, the game of American football is a furious game of strategy. In fact, it is so strategy-intensive that the game is paused for half a minute between each play to allow both teams to formulate or select the best strategy for the next one. There are actual headsets inside players’ helmets, through which coaches can communicate strategic commands between plays from the sidelines. For the uninitiated the game can look downright disjointed or ridiculously drawn out, but in fact it is designed to allow for the right balance of thinking, planning and action. What fans are treated to in each game is the repeated combination of rapid strategy formation and execution.

With that said, would you happen to know what was the year and score of the most one-sided championship game in the history of professional American football? Think for a moment, or take a guess. The answer is 1940 (so before the Super Bowl era which started in 1967), when the Chicago Bears happened to beat the Washington Redskins 73-0. That is an absolute walloping. It’s hard to believe. So why did it happen? How could one team beat another to such a degree when playing in the championship of any tightly contested sport? After all, you would not expect such a glaring disparity between the two best teams.

You don’t have to really know the sport to appreciate the answer. In simplest terms, American football is played by two teams, each taking turns trying to get an elliptical ball from one end of a field to the other, with the other team trying to prevent it from doing so. Whichever team can do this more often, either by running or throwing and catching the ball, wins. So let me set the stage for this game. Three weeks prior, the same two teams met in Chicago, and the Redskins were triumphant 7-3. This time, the game was to be played in Washington, so naturally the Redskins were favored to win. Additionally, this was to be the first nationally broadcast game on radio, so that millions of people would be tuned in live, adding to the hype.

So what triggered such an unexpected and complete trouncing by the Bears? The answer is the ‘T’ formation. This was the first time in the history of the sport that a team featured a new strategic formation—having two players who could potentially run with the ball instead of just one. Why was this such a big deal? Traditionally, each team would have only a single runner or running back, so that the defense of the opposing team would know exactly who would get the ball and who they had to stop. But with the ‘T’ formation, all of the sudden there were two potential runners to stop, and there was no way to know which would get the ball. This seemingly simple, additional layer of flexibility was so potent that the Redskins were unable to put up any meaningful resistance.

Were the Bears cheating? Did they break any rules? Of course not! They simply challenged the taken-for-granted mode of engagement, created their own variation of the game within the confines of the overall rules. By doing so, they no longer had to go head to head, strength to strength with a formidable opponent. Instead, they tweaked their strategy in a way that the opponent could not possibly anticipate or be prepared for it. And here is the critical point in terms of business application: When you overstep barriers and shed assumptions, you no longer have to be the best by any traditional measure. Because it no longer mattered if the Bears had the single best running back, as long as the Redskins had no idea which of two runners they needed to stop.

And by virtue of creating their own version of the game via the ‘T’ formation, the Bears became the best in it. In other words, they willingly forfeited being best in the traditional sense in exchange for creating a new standard which made them best in a more relevant way. By being game-changing, or market-driving, the Bears minimized the cost of victory (not having to out-duel the Redskins in conventional ways), at the same time they maximized the margin of victory, AND they provided exceptional, new value to consumers (as spectators and listeners were all of the sudden treated to a more entertaining, multifaceted game).

To bring the example full-circle back to the business world, some years ago I attended a luncheon where Klaus Kleinfeld (then CEO of Siemens USA, soon thereafter overall CEO of Siemens, gave an address. He opened his speech by referencing this very story about the Bears-Redskins game. His message was that he wanted to inspire every employee within his massive organization to think like the 1940 Bears every single day, continuously scanning and overstepping boundaries in pursuit of providing new value to consumers and for the company.