Building a championship business

2011

Sports franchises receive trophies for winning championships. These trophies denote dominance and unmatched success for these franchises. But there are no trophies to win and no medals to wave to signify business supremacy. Sure, success can be measured by stock price, revenue growth and profitability, but there is no recognized winner named each year. Apple Computer's recent earnings report is astounding, but, is Apple the champion of the industry? Microsoft doesn't think so.

All of this serves to make one wonder, Is business perfection achievable? Can a business go undefeated? Can a business become the recognized champion of the industry? Probably not. The market decides winners from losers, and, we all know that the market can be a very fickle mistress.

But we can build championship-caliber businesses by borrowing from championship-winning sports franchises. If we look at traits shared by some of the greatest sports teams – champions that have gone entire seasons without losing a game – we will find that they all share five common traits:

  1. Making perfect execution the only goal ;
  2. Staying in the moment;
  3. Forging a work environment characterized by continuous preparation;
  4. Game planning that accommodates mid-course adjustments, and;
  5. Undying belief in the leader

Let's explore each of these, what I like to call, "Perfection Factors" in more detail.

Perfect Execution is the Only Goal
All of the perfect teams made the notion of perfection realistic and achievable by making the pursuit of perfect execution the goal. In 1972 the National Football League's Miami Dolphins went undefeated and won the Super Bowl championship. Interestingly, Don Shula, their coach never made a perfect season the goal. Instead, he made sure that the team sought perfect execution on every play. Anything less and he would remind the team about how humiliating it was to have lost in Super Bowl VI, the year before, when they failed to execute their game plan and were manhandled by the Dallas Cowboys by a score of 24 to 3.

Business leaders can do the same. Seeking business perfection in the marketplace can seem lofty and conceptually difficult to realize. However, perfect execution can be measured and achieved. It should be sought every day. It is through perfect execution that business perfection is accomplished.

Consider Toyota's dominance in the automobile industry. The firm's focus on continuous improvement has led to lower production costs and higher quality products than its competitors. By working towards perfecting its execution in the manufacturing of its automobiles, Toyota has captured market share and drove up its stock price in a very difficult economy.

Staying in the Moment is Essential
How does a team go undefeated? One game at a time! Clearly, you can't have an undefeated season until you play (and win) every game on the schedule. The most any team can hope to accomplish at any point in time is to win the next game. To do so, teams must prepare for each game, one game at a time.

Coach John Wooden of the undefeated UCLA championship teams in men's collegiate basketball never spoke of running the table. He drilled it into his players. At no time in their perfect seasons did Wooden, or any of his players, address any of the media's questions about going undefeated. Instead, they stayed in the moment. They focused on the next game and let the media speculate and prophesize about perfect seasons. Business leaders can do the same.

Too often today's enterprises get distracted. They abandon their game plans and begin to blindly chase shiny objects in the corner – only to find that the distraction caused them to lose ground and squander precious assets while they were at it. Perfection is achieved one game at a time.

It would have been easy for CEO Bob Iger to lose focus on extending, what many industry observers considered, a "dated" Disney brand during this time of great turmoil in the media industry. Instead, he redoubled his commitment to invigorate the Disney brand by crafting a business environment where mega franchises, like High School Musical and Hannah Montana could grow and prosper – revitalizing the Company in the process and positioning for long-term success.

Continuous Preparation
Geno Auriemma has made preparation a religion within the University of Connecticut's Women's Basketball Program. Every week in practice, he drills his players in all types of game situations – regardless of its probability to actually occur during a game. He wants his team to be able to think and react to what's happening on the court. This improves anticipation and playmaking. It enables flawless execution. They have had two undefeated seasons in under his watch.

Businesses can do this, as well. They can be deliberate in the ways in which they anticipate and plot the future. By continuously preparing for various scenarios, an organization learns how to adjust and react without hesitation – staff knows what to do and how to do it, no matter what situation arises in the business environment.

Royal Dutch Shell, for example, uses scenarios to explore the future. Unlike mathematical forecasting, scenario planning anticipates how people behave and react and describe ways in which those human actions can play out in the marketplace. The resulting scenarios reveal different possible futures.

In turn, Shell proactively develops action plans to address the most likely scenarios in the event that one day they occur. This enables the Company to stay one step ahead of the competition every time.

Game Planning that Accommodates Mid-Course Adjustments
While most teams go into every game with a plan for victory, sometimes those plans get foiled by a rival's equally accomplished game plan. So, coaches have to make mid-course adjustments. Three times during the 1972 season the Miami Dolphins went into the locker room with a half time deficit, only to emerge victorious by game's end.

There's no doubt that their coach, Don Shula, was a genius in making real-time adjustments. By monitoring execution and recognizing trends and nuances in the marketplace, a business improves its chances of making winning mid-term adjustments. Coupled with flexible strategic plans and solid processes for quickly implementing changes separates good enterprises from great ones.

When online travel broker, Travelocity, first arrived on the scene, its strategic plan was based on being the low cost provider within its niche. All of the initiatives in the plan aimed at helping the firm enable the offering of low cost guarantees. However, with the emergence of worthy rivals pursuing similar strategies, Travelocity has had to adjust its strategic plan to include new projects intended to provide impeccable service delivery.

Travelocity's new programs like the Customer Bill of Rights (which outlines what customers should expect from travel agencies) and the Proactive Customer Care program (that identifies and investigates issues that may impact a customer travel) are paying handsomely.

Last year, Travelocity's sales jumped 35% over the prior year. There's certainly something to be said for consistently monitoring and adjusting business strategies.

Belief in the Leader
When preparing his team for the next game, John Wooden never talked about winning, or, basketball for that matter. Famous for not having organized plays, Wooden would talk to his team about values, loyalty and team. He firmly planted the notion within each of his players that they did not play for the glory of winning, but, for each other.

His players responded by winning. In fact, his UCLA Bruins had two perfect seasons during his tenure. Clearly, his teams believed in their Coach and gave their all to make him proud.

Unquestionably, senior leadership sets the tone for the organizations that they lead. Staff members are much more inclined to watch what their management team is doing and emulate that behavior than it is to respond only to the words that are being said. It is through actions, not words, that senior leaders become living examples of the traits and values that they want their organizations to embrace.

Iconic business leaders like Berkshire Hathaway's Warren Buffet and Apple's Steve Jobs come to mind. Apparent opposites, Buffet a conservative and unassuming Midwesterner and Jobs, a hip and flashy west coast techie, have both crafted compelling visions for their organizations which serve to attract and cultivate the best and brightest talent available.

A business enterprise that regularly decimates its competition is running the table. The only difference between championship sports teams and championship businesses is that the sports team had the context of an established game schedule to set the boundary for their perfection. Perfect businesses don't have that luxury. Presumably, their competitive schedule goes on forever.

Nonetheless, the adoption of the five "Perfection Factors" discussed above can only serve to improve an organization's ability to reach perfection, and, to become the de facto champions with their industries.

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About The Author

James M. Kerr
James M. Kerr

James M. Kerr is the Global Chair of the Culture Transformation Practice at N2Growth and the author of The Executive Checklist. A specialist in organizational design and cultural transformation, he has been helping clients re-imagine the way work is organized and performed for more than 25 years. Kerr’s next book is due out later in 2016 and focuses on leadership and strategy-setting.