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What We Can Learn from the NFL Draft

I have a confession to make – I love the NFL draft!

I don’t sit in front of a TV for three days, hanging on every pick. But I like the suspense of wondering who will get selected first. I enjoy seeing the differences between what the experts predict and who the teams actually draft. And I’m anxious to see if my favorite teams (go Cowboys, Chargers, Broncos, & Falcons!) got the players they need to make it back to the Super Bowl.

But what really fascinates me about the draft is how it mirrors the strategic planning process. The draft involves intense competition for scarce resources. It requires a careful assessment of each team’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as those of the competition. And it involves a great deal of uncertainty. No matter how well a player performs in college, you never really know how he will do in the pros.

The NFL draft requires management to make decisions that will have a huge impact on the team’s performance in the future. And that’s what strategic planning is all about — figuring out what you need to do today in order to get to where you want to go tomorrow.

Many of the factors that make for a successful NFL draft have real application for today’s business leaders:

Get clear on your destination. This is an easy one for football teams — winning the Super Bowl. In fact, the whole point of the draft is to identify and select the players that will (hopefully) get you there. For businesses, it’s not so easy. One of your most important jobs as a leader is defining what “winning the Super Bowl” looks like for your organization. Once you know where you’re going, then you can create a plan to reach that destination and make sure you have the right players to get there.

Choose your opportunities carefully. Several years ago, the San Diego Chargers had the second overall pick in the draft. They selected Ryan Leaf, a big, strong-armed quarterback who quickly became one the biggest flops in the history of the NFL draft. His failure cost the Chargers millions and set the franchise back several years in their quest to return to winning football. In business, opportunities are not always what they seem. Investigate carefully before betting your company on anything that looks like a sure deal.

Do the research. At the time, virtually every team in the NFL considered Leaf a “can’t miss” prospect. Clearly, he had the physical skills and athletic ability. What he lacked was the mental toughness and emotional maturity to succeed at the pro level. The moral of the story? When evaluating talent, look at all aspects of the person and not just their technical skills.

Be flexible. With demand for great players far exceeding supply, NFL teams must have multiple backup plans to get the players they need. For every pick in the draft, teams need to ask, “Here’s the guy we want. What do we do if someone else takes him ahead of us?” Businesses need to ask similar “what if?” questions. For example, “What if our biggest competitor suddenly went out of business?” Or, “What would we do if our cost of supplies suddenly doubled due to a shortage of raw materials?” We can’t predict the future with any certainty. But we can manage uncertainty to a degree by planning ahead for possible outcomes.

Expect the unexpected. Who foresaw the Denver Broncos taking Tim Tebow in the first round? In business, never assume you know what your customers want or how your competitors will react.

Perhaps the most important lesson from the NFL draft is to make change happen on your terms. When teams with a low first-round pick want a real superstar, they have two options: wait and hope that nobody takes the player ahead of them (risky), or trade up for a higher position in the draft. Trading up typically involves sacrificing future draft picks or current players. But if a team gets the right player, it can mean the difference between a championship and an also-ran season.

In business, you can wait for market changes to dictate your course of action (risky). Or you can go out and make change happen on your terms. Guess which approach market leaders typically use?

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