Now that the NFL football season is behind us, it’s a good time to reflect. As a lifelong suffering Eagles fan, I could not be more delighted that Chip Kelly is at the helm. The team became division champions with a record of 10-6 in the regular season after 2012’s disastrous 4-12 season. More important, Kelly offers the prospect of continuous improvement—and multiple Lombardi trophies.
Contrast Kelly with his predecessor, Andy Reid. Reid’s overall winning percentage with the Eagles was a highly respectable 0.583. And his team did make it to one Super Bowl. Problem was, the Eagles under Reid played too little basketball.
What do I mean by that? Football is a model of hierarchical control; most plays are scripted. The star is the coach, along with his lieutenant on the field—the quarterback. Basketball is a model of spontaneous cooperation: five players interacting fluidly in real time. The star is the team—players and coach as a unit. Reid was masterful at game planning. He simply couldn’t adjust well on the fly—as evidenced by his chronic struggles with clock management.
Football has become more basketball-like because of the speed of the game and new offensive sets that emphasize spontaneity, such as the West Coast offense. Legendary San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh acknowledged that he developed his short-passing West Coast scheme after having watched point guards in basketball bring the ball up court and distribute it. Kelly reminds me of Walsh, winner of three Super Bowls.
Psychologists distinguish between two kinds of intelligence: crystallized and fluid. Crystallized is based on experience—accumulated learning over time. Fluid intelligence is dynamic—based on the ability to respond effectively to novel situations. Reid rates high in crystallized intelligence. Kelly rates high in both.
When I was writing my first book—Game Plans: Sports Strategies for Business—I interviewed Carl Peterson, then president of the USFL Philadelphia Stars (and former Eagles general manager and future Kansas City Chiefs president). I asked him to what extent an NFL game could be reduced to preparation versus adjustment. Peterson opined 75 percent versus 25 percent—with most significant changes occurring during halftime.
For a long time, I quoted the 3-1 ratio to underscore the importance of top-down planning in football. Then I became aware of recent statistics that gave me pause. Roughly half of NFL games are decided by six or seven points, and about one-quarter by only three; hence, even though football is preparation-intensive, adjustment can be pivotal.
What are the business implications of Kelly’s coaching? Even if a firm is the equivalent of a football team, injecting basketball paradigms can help. Typical corporate teams are low cost, efficiency-driven organizations—such as fast food chains like McDonald’s and big-box retailers like Walmart. A big-box example of a Kelly-led company is Costco, which has been called the “anti -Walmart.” Whereas Walmart’s average hourly pay is less than $13 for full-time workers, Costco’s is almost $21. Like a basketball team, Costco is collaborative and flexible.
Or consider an executive education session that I led some time ago. The audience was made up of senior managers with a company that built nuclear power plants. One of the participants argued that basketball would never work in their highly controlled environment.
“We just can’t innovate like an Apple or a Disney because the costs of failure are prohibitive,” the executive said.
He had a point. But before I could respond, one of his colleagues intervened: “Yes, but we could be a whole lot more adaptable and less bureaucratic without compromising requisite control.”
It could not have been said better.
So here’s to Kelly’s Eagles and to the lessons that I’m sure will be forthcoming for corporate coaches everywhere, irrespective of sector or industry.