Sports & Business

Adaptable Football Formations and Business Strategies: Going for the Win

Formations in football and strategies in business are good starting points for the competition. But are team members ready to step out of formation when opportunity for success comes their way?
&mdsash; By Vincent Pane

Football is full of formations – T-formation, I-formation, shotgun formation, pistol formation, goal line formation, wildcard formation, and the singleback formation are just a few of the ones used by offensive teams. Is there a more popular competitive landscape in the United States? Probably not, and that is the single reason it offers so many lessons on building and managing a successful team to businesses.

Formations are strategies employed to win, but they do not work without coaches who are adaptable and can drive the kind of team behavior that creates a winning team. Successful businesses create their own formations of managers and talent who are driven to succeed at reaching strategic goals. But like each football player in the formation, each business team member must be empowered to succeed.

In football, it could mean adapting a formation or breaking formation in an unexpected way to catch the competition off guard. In business, it means team members can recognize unexpected opportunity and grab it on some manner.

Lined up to Play
Think of a manager as a quarterback surrounded by qualified team members on an offensive team. How are players lined up?

Football teams learn different formations that determine how each player coordinates with various team members and interacts with the other team. The formation has a lot to do with how the play unfolds. In the T-formation, the oldest offensive formation, there is an option to run the ball to either side. It was a favored formation for decades, and then fell out of favor for new ones. Now it is making a comeback but with variations.

In 1940, the Chicago Bears beat the Washington Redskins 73-0 in a championship game before the era of the Super Bowl. The Redskins had beat the Bears three weeks earlier with a score of 7-3. The trouncing the Bears gave the Reskins was shocking, especially since the game was played in Washington.

This win was the result of using the T-formation, but not the same version used before this formation made way for newer ones. In this T-formation, instead of the traditional single running back expected to run the ball, there were two positions lined up behind the quarterback that could run the ball – today the running back and the full back. Suddenly, the Bears had new flexibility, and the competition was confused as to the best way to respond.

This would be a business leader’s dream situation – a team willing to stretch boundaries.

Reaching for a Passing Opportunity
It sounds so simple today, but sometimes it does not take much to add flexibility and agility to any team – football or business.

Once a football formation is broken (it only has to be held for one second), each team member has specific duties. In football it could be protecting the quarterback from being tackled or running with the ball or pushing defenders off the line of scrimmage or catching a long pass and then running.

Business has a similar strategy. Start with a team of people, and each person has a role and a job description.

What happens though when opportunity comes along? Are team members ready to step outside the box and nab it?

In football, players often do the impossible. The quarterback runs the ball for a 93-yard touchdown because no one can catch him (think Oakland Raiders vs. Pittsburgh Steelers), or a tight end jumps over two defenders for a 30-yard gain (think Baltimore Ravens vs. Broncos). The best football players understand their role during formation, but after the play begins, they also understand they will do what is necessary within the rules to win.

Business has a similar strategy. Start with a team of people, and each person has a role and a job description.
Businesses regularly develop strategies and often have a playbook of sorts. A company has a certain way of doing things, and it must rely on its employees to adapt to the strategy chosen. It is up to leadership to align and support its team, but more is needed if they are going to run with creativity or opportunity. A manager can line up the team, hand employees a playbook with the strategy, and trust people will do their best to succeed. Missing is the certainty the team members are engaged and empowered and understand they can think outside the box, even while pursuing common goals. It is outside the box where careers grow and innovation is generated.

Leaders Help Others be Their Best Selves
If the football players were told to only do their specific duties assigned to a specific role within a named formation, there would probably be few 80-yard touchdowns because most are the result of a sudden opportunity, often due to someone’s mistake.

Then there are the teams that recognize they have a skills gap, and they work around it. The wildcat offense formation is a variation of a precursor to the shotgun offense called the single-wing offense. The quarterback is replaced by a receiver or running back who accepts a direct snap from the center and can run with the ball, throw a pass, or hand the ball off. The idea is to confuse the defense. The Miami Dolphins defeated the New England Patriots in 20017 with this formation, and now multiple NFL teams use it. It, too, has been adapted and tweaked because once the defense teams learned this offense formation, they figured out a way to respond.

Dave Martin wrote for American Banker and used the story of the LSU championship win to point out that it was Ed Orgeron’s understanding that a changed competitive landscape demanded new strategies and leadership approaches. It was not the formations and plays that were radically changed. It was Orgeron’s strategy of recruiting the best staff possible and then allowed them to succeed. He did not micromanage. He became a role model for trust, ethical work standards, and empowerment of others. Martin reminds bank managers they have great talent, but implying there is a lot of talent lying dormant due to a lack of empowering leadership.

Jump for the Win
At the beginning of the season, LSU and Orgeron were generally viewed as having low potential to achieve success. Football coaches and business leaders must engage, support, encourage, and empower talent, if talent is to shine.

Managers in any industry must share a vision, create an engaging culture, create teams with the best talent possible, and hold people accountable. Business strategies (formations) must be flexible and let people stretch their talents when opportunities arise.

When the ball is unexpectedly flying their way, will your team members stay in formation or jump for the win?