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Why Winning is So Hard

News flash – winning is hard!winners_podium

If you don’t think so, just ask the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens, who got spanked by my Broncos on this season’s NFL opener.  Of course, they didn’t plan to lose that game. In fact, they had every intention of winning. But sometimes things don’t go according to plan.

And if you think it’s hard to win in sports, it’s even harder to win in business. The playing field isn’t nearly as level, and competitors don’t have to give the ball back once they score. In either arena, however, winning often depends a lot more on what we do (or don’t do) rather than the other team’s actions.

Football teams enjoy one major advantage over corporations because they have a built-in definition of winning. They know, with absolute clarity, that in order to win they must have more points on the board than the other team when the clock runs out. In business, we don’t often take the time to define winning with anything approaching that level of clarity. And when we do, obstacles still arise that cause us to lose our focus on winning. For example:

 Thought Bubbles

If you ask me, thought bubbles – our internal attitudes, beliefs and assumptions about how the world works – constitute the biggest detriment to winning. Few things will cause us to take our eye off the ball like these kinds of internal messages:

This plan will magically happen now that we wrote it down.

  • I know we said this project wasn’t important any more, but I’ll keep working on it a little longer…just in case.
  • I know I should communicate more about how we will win, but I just don’t have the time.
  • If I keep running fast enough, things will work out and we’ll get there.


Failure to adjust

I constantly talk about the need to pause for a moment and assess whether what we’re doing to reach our destination still makes sense. Football teams have a built-in pause, called halftime, where coaches and players get a chance to regroup, assess what’s working and what isn’t, and make adjustments. They even get quick pauses (timeouts) during the game to do the same thing in emergency situations.

In business, we have to create our own halftimes to regroup and reassess. It wasn’t too long ago that we could ride out a strategic plan for one, three or even five years without any major changes. These days, if you’re not checking in with your plan at least once a quarter, you may be giving your team the ball on its own one-yard line with no time-outs and less than a minute to go.


It never ceases to amaze me how many seasoned business leaders expect their plans to unfold without any fumbles, interceptions or blocked punts. Here again, football has a major advantage. Throughout the game, performance feedback is instantaneous and ongoing. You know exactly how many yards you gained or lost at the end of each play. The score is constantly updated. And when the final whistle blows, everyone knows who won and who lost.

In business, not so much. Sometimes we don’t get real feedback on cost reduction efforts, new sales initiatives or market share gains for weeks or even months. Which makes it a lot easier to deny, disbelieve and rationalize away the data when in finally arrives. (We can thank our brains for that one!) All of which contributes to the fantasy that our plan will pull through if we just wish hard enough or run faster in place than we already are.

I’m not suggesting that we totally scrap the plan at the first minor stumble. But to win in today’s hyper-fast markets, we have to be willing to learn (and unlearn) along the way. We need to develop the skill of strategic agility – moving fast with focus and flexibility while keeping our eye on the goal line. Most important, we need to adjust our plan and strategy as necessary as we move forward.

To help achieve these goals, I recommend a process called “breakthrough modeling.” In this technique, you get clear on the destination and then set different levels of interim goals for getting there, making it easier to adjust the plan as circumstances dictate.

Stay tuned next week for a discussion on this valuable technique. In the meantime, go Broncos!

 Call to action: Define what winning looks like for your organization. Then make sure everyone knows it.

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