Friday, February 08, 2013

Throwing Blind

Something important about organizational management occurred to me a few weeks ago while watching my two grandsons, ages 7 and 9 respectively, duel it out on the incredibly realistic Madden NFL 13 video game they play on their upgraded Wii U.

The video game itself offers great lessons in strategic thinking because a player’s point of view is elevated.  That isn’t how it appears to players in an actual football game.

It made me think of Hall of Fame quarterback, Steve Young, who my grandsons refer to now as “one of the talkers,” referring to his role as a commentator.

He didn’t see a football game from the stands for the first time until long after his days as a All American at BYU and guiding the San Francisco 49ers to a Super Bowl in 1994.

Young acknowledged recently that during his playing days he was only six feet tall.  That’s my height – the height I used to be - albeit he was thirty or more pounds heavier.  He was always listed at 6’ 2” but that was with his shoes on.

He wrote recently that he couldn’t see when his receivers were open so he had to learn to throw blind, trusting that teammates such as Jerry Rice would be exactly where they had practiced on each play.  I remember when my boyhood heroes, Johnny Unitas and Raymond Berry said the same thing.

Unless an organization has a very simple, one dimensional mission, it is like a football team.  Strategically, every individual involved must understand and execute a role so that the team as a whole functions much as though they were one person, always in synch.

In fact, each team member must earn the trust of the others so that any one of them can “throw blind.”  Any executive can be popular with co-workers.  The real challenge in organizational management is to recruit individuals who are willing and able, and then to persuade them to surrender individual differences to earn success as a team.

It is what my long-time friend Coach K describes as “the fist:”

“There are five fundamental qualities that make every team great: communication, trust, collective responsibility, caring and pride. I like to think of each as a separate finger on the fist. Any one individually is important. But all of them together are unbeatable.”

Steve Young is an inspiration, not just because he starred at Brigham Young University a decade after I graduated from that institution.  Actually, he had been very heavily recruited by the University of North Carolina not far from where I live now.

North Carolina used a run-option offense, much as Young had orchestrated during high school career in Connecticut.  He had never really learned to pass except in emergencies.

But he deliberately chose to attend BYU even though it was earning a reputation as “Quarterback U” due to its vaunted passing offense under Lavell Edwards.  However, BYU didn’t initially have Young in mind as a quarterback when he was recruited.

Virgil Carter had starred at BYU as I was finishing high school but during the years I attended the school wasn’t known for football.  The only player I recall from those years was Golden Richards who went on star as a wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys in two Super Bowls.  Who could forget a name like that?

Edwards, who had been an assistant coach at BYU for 16 years, took over as head coach a few months after I graduated from BYU in 1972.  Beginning with Gifford Nielsen followed by Marc Wilson, BYU began an ascent as a football power, eventually winning a national championship in 1984.

An All American, Wilson was succeeded by Jim McMahon who inspired one of the greatest comebacks in college football history before leading the Chicago Bears to a Super Bowl.  Both set numerous NCAA records and each finished third in Heisman Trophy balloting.

Young began his career at BYU ranked a lowly 8th on the depth chart behind McMahon.  He set out to become a great passer, eventually succeeding McMahon and setting records of his own.

He went on to win six NFL passing titles before retiring with the league’s highest passer rating following a series of concussions.  He still holds the record with six touchdown passes in a Super Bowl.  Not bad for a guy who started college 8th on the depth chart.

All together during his NFL career, Young passed for more than 33,000 yards and 232 touchdowns while running for more than 4,000 yards and 43 touchdowns including this incredible 49-yard zigzagging run after avoiding a sack.

Young’s 1990s style is epitomized today by run-option quarterbacks who can run or pass.  As impressive as throwing blind is that each of his receivers at every level had to learn to catch the ball, thrown by a left-handed quarterback which means the ball was rotating in the opposite direction.

I guess you could say he was a pretty good CEO too.  But Young succeeded because he could trust his teammates, and they were successful because they could trust one another to each do their job in pursuit of an overall strategic goal.

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