The Playbook: Part 1

by Stew Bradley September 19th, 2020

Most team sports use a playbook, but football is extreme about it. Unlike basketball or soccer, where gameplay is fluid and continuous, a football game is a staccato of stops and starts. Each attempt to advance the ball down the field—called a play—lasts only a few seconds, after which the teams regroup to strategize for the next attempt. Start to finish, a football game lasts over three hours, but less than 15 minutes of it are actual gameplay. The rest of the time is spent deliberating about the next play. And it is all this strategizing that has football coaches so obsessed with playbooks.

In the NFL, the stakes are high and the playbooks are massive. To learn these behemoths teams kick off each season with training camp, effectively a month-long deep dive into the playbook. It is a total slog, but it’s also vital for team preparation and the playbook is central to the daily rhythm. Each evening a different part of the playbook is installed—a euphemism for hours of meetings and discussions—and practice the next day is focused on the recently installed material. Wash, rinse, repeat. After a month of this, the team has absorbed most of the playbook and is ready to start preparing for games.

A playbook is a strategic document that frames how a team should work to achieve its long-term goals—providing the foundation for how a team operates by codifying roles and responsibilities, defining best practices, and establishing a common language for team actions. Building a successful business—like a football game—involves lots of planning, and having a playbook can be a huge difference-maker. A business playbook can be a set of structured written documents or a loose agglomeration of workflows, procedures, and values. The form is not important as long as the team clearly understands how, why, and what work to do. Defining how a team should operate removes ambiguity and indecision. Defining why a team should focus on a particular goal provides context, empowering the team to make progress on their own. Defining what a team should focus on helps to set clear priorities and expectations. It's a lot easier for teams to exceed expectations if they actually know what they are. Without a playbook, teams take an ad hoc approach to solving challenges. In the worst cases, a lack of process can lead to teammates duking-it-out based on strength of personality or level of influence, creating a corrosive political culture and delivering mediocre results.

While creating a playbook is essential, it's only a starting point. It should facilitate development for both the entrepreneur and the team. Below are four ways I've seen NFL teams interact with playbooks that are pertinent for developing businesses.

(1) Focus on the game plan: In the NFL, coaches devise a unique game plan for each opponent. These game plans are like mini-playbooks that only include the plays needed for the upcoming game. Game plans allow teams to focus by stripping away everything but the most necessary elements for solving near-term challenges. A playbook is comprehensive and long-term focused, a game plan is only concerned with near-term execution. Game plans are how the proverbial sausage gets made, so once you find a playbook that fits, focus on the game plan.

(2) Learn to self-scout: NFL teams are passionate about analyzing the quality of their decision making. Self-scouting is a benchmarking process in which teams record each play of every game and compare it to plays called by other teams in similar situations. It's a herculean task that requires the full attention of multiple specialists to get done each week. The takeaway isn't that businesses should be as pedantic around decisioning as NFL coaches, but that decision making is a skill and should be developed as such. For businesses, playbooks layout best practices and clear expectations which can act as a baseline for assessing the quality of decisions. As the saying almost goes: if it doesn't get measured, it won't get managed. And while making expedient decisions is a fact of life when starting a business, understanding expectations and tracking results are key to making significant improvements.

(3) Call the audible: An audible is an ad hoc change of plans made by a player on the field. Audibles are the conditional branching of football, allowing coaches to layer if/else statements into the game plan. By empowering players to make decisions, coaches add dynamism to their playcalling. Typically, only one or two players have the authority to audible. Players with both the experience and trust to act as an extension of the coach on the field. In the early days of a startup, founders are both a player and the coach, and the first challenge for many is merely learning to delegate. But the next, more challenging step is developing enough trust and structure to empower team members to call audibles. Allowing audibles doesn't mean taking your hands off the wheel and hoping for the best; it takes a lot of work to encode processes enough that audibles make sense. And while it can be scary to let go of control, it is vital in creating operational leverage and removing bottlenecks for a scaling organization.

(4) Match the playbook to the personnel: Not every playbook is a good fit for every team. The 500-page tome the Chiefs used to win the Superbowl will not work with your local Pop Warner team, just like Apple's operational approach doesn't make sense for a two-person startup. Matching the playbook to the personnel is imperative for a team to be successful. In some cases, the playbook needs to evolve on the fly. A key injury or trade can change a teams ability to execute, and in these situations, the best coaches adapt. This matching challenge is especially real for young companies, where business models are dynamic, teams are small, and resources are limited. Building is hard; if the current playbook isn't working, assess your options, and change it. Great coaches (and operators) make things easier for their teams, not harder. In football and business, there is no extra prize for doing it the hard way. Finding an operational approach that fits the opportunity set, competitive landscape, and team dynamics won't make building easy, but it's a good place to start. COVID has highlighted the need to adjust when conditions change. Businesses that have leaned into the new normal are fairing better on a relative basis than those that have been slow to adapt.

At El Cap, we try to take time each week to discuss our process. The majority of our focus is on executing the game plan, but stepping out of the daily grind for some self-scouting can be both cathartic and productive. The vast majority of our learning comes from ground-level work, and that learning can shift perspectives. Taking the time to come up for air allows us to leverage our continued learning by making subtle course corrections. In the game we're playing, these can become huge value drivers over time.

In Part 2 of this series, we'll get into the weeds on how to develop a playbook and offer a detailed view of our version at El Cap.


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