A couple of weeks ago a long-time friend (also a Forty Niners fan) and I were discussing the Niners while sharing a bottle of good Pinot. He asked how I was feeling about the Niners' prospects, given the recent changes in leadership. "Pretty easy ... I'm more optimistic than I have been at any time in the last 15 years ... not about the ownership and business side of the enterprise, but about the football side." He seemed stunned by my response ... why is that? "Because for the first time since Bill Walsh was in charge we have football decision-makers who have the right focus and approach to achieve rapid progress." Now he's really confused ... what the hell does that mean?
"It really isn't much different from what makes some prospective entrepreneurs successful and others not. Let me explain."
"Rapid progress in any given field is only attained when executives leading the charge have the right focus and approach to make the progress possible. In the case of the Niners, the difference between Walsh and apparently Lynch and Co. versus all the other GMs we've had between them is dramatic. People get hung up in the fact that it's football ... which is somehow supposed to be different from other businesses. But it doesn't really matter much whether we're talking about a semiconductor or football enterprise, the attributes that lead to success aren't really much different at all." He wanted further explanation, so here's what I said:
1. First, the executive team MUST be on the same page ... they must believe in the same objective and the most effective initial process for getting there. It should be pretty obvious ... if you're not all on the same page it's going to be more difficult to decide where you're going and how to get there. That's why it is critical that the CEO be sure that his staff shares the commonly-believed-in goal and initial path. Walsh and McVay were in lock-step and lived by two cardinal rules: (a) then is then, now is now ... past performance doesn't count; and (b) scout inside out, not outside in ... know your scheme, decide what you want in players at each position, and then look for players who fit those specs; if at first you don't succeed, you don't change the goal, you change the process for finding better players who do fit the specs. So far Lynch and Shanahan seem to agree on position specs and have the same "inside out" scouting approach that Walsh/McVay did. Conversely, Donahue, Nolan, McCloughan, and Baalke all largely took the opposite approach, "scouting outside in" ... unilaterally deciding on what players to select and then expecting the coaching staffs to mold those players into a winning team within whatever scheme that the HC believed in. (Further, in Baalke's case, it was never obvious that there was a consistent pattern to what he was looking for at any given position because frequently the specs seemed to change from one pick to the next ... yielding a player hodge-podge.) It's possible to make this latter approach work, large through serendipity, but it is very much more difficult and certainly much more time-consuming.
2. Second, it's critical that the executives understand how the system of ends (goals) and means (process to get there) works and the necessity to be driven by the former. People frequently delude themselves into believing that they can select BOTH the end (goal) and the means (process to get there) in a given situation. Alas, that's not the way the world works. You can select one or the other, but NOT BOTH. If you select a goal, not just any process will necessarily get you there ... you have to find the right process to reach the goal. Conversely, if you select a process, it will lead you to its end, which may or may not necessarily result in achieving your desired goal. (A simple example: If you select the process of drinking alcohol consistently for several consecutive hours, the end will be that you get drunk. If you goal was to avoid drunkenness, you selected the wrong process. Drink a lot? Stay sober? You can't pick both.)
When you're attempting to improve things (whether that's a company, a team, an employment situation, a friendship, a marriage, etc.) you have to be willing to take an alternative approach (different process) if you're not achieving the results (goal) that you'd like. The present unsatisfactory situation (company, team results, job, friendship, marriage) didn't just happen ... it is the product of the processes used to get there. If you want the outcome to be different, you have to be willing to change the process to one that has a higher probability of getting you to the desired goal. Baalke always opted to select the process ... which led the team to an unsuccessful end. Worse, he was unwilling to change that process when it should have been obvious that the team was going in the wrong direction to achieve the desired goal. Again, YOU CAN'T PICK BOTH. Walsh (and now hopefully Lynch and Shanahan) selected the goal and continued to change and refine the process until he reached the desired goal.
3. The path isn't necessarily easy. The executive team must be relentless in its pursuit of the goal ... if the first process selected isn't working, they MUST have the guts and willingness to change the process. Enter risk. Change ALWAYS involves risk ... of doing something different ... which can frequently be frightening. But the thing is, that if you aren't willing to take the risk you won't change the unsuccessful process which means that you are not likely to reach the desired goal. This is frequently the precise reason that people don't progress in their careers any more rapidly than they do ... they are afraid of change, of taking a risk. But, without taking risks, rapid progress is almost never possible. Let me cite a couple of examples from my own personal experience:
- During a ten-year management consulting career my sole work objective was to help my client make "things" (however defined) better. "Better" means change and change ALWAYS involves risk ... and you NEVER know in advance how it will turn out for sure until you try. You can extrapolate from past experiences, but that doesn't necessarily assure a similar outcome because the circumstances are different. What is for sure is that if you don't take any risks you certainly won't make things better, you'll just get more of the same. In the case of the Niners, is that what any of us really wants?
- After my consulting career, I co-founded several high technology companies. When you found a new company you are almost always trying to do something that others have not successfully accomplished before ... else why would you bother? And, rarely do any of the co-founders have past experience in doing exactly what they are now trying to accomplish. Once again, it's risky ... you NEVER know how it will turn our for sure until you try. But there is one thing that is a surety ... if you don't try, for SURE you won't get there. (In my case, three of the five start-ups that I was involved with achieved success and became publicly-traded companies ... but we had NO assurance that that would be the outcome when we started the companies. We had to risk failure in order to achieve success. I left the other two companies because the management teams wouldn't accept the need to change a failed process that wasn't leading to the goal.)
At this point my friend was somewhat confused about how all of this related to the Forty Niners ... and I suspect that you may be in the same boat. I explained:
- Lynch and Shanahan appear to be locked at the hip with respect to goal and initial approach ... the latter could change later but they're off to a good start.
- Having defined the specific attributes that they want for each position, having instructed the scouting staff accordingly (what an incredible shock that must have been for the scouts after having worked for Baalke), having hired a very capable young guy to head the player personnel function, and having selected players (via the draft and/or free agency) that fit those specs tells me that the new decision-makers are focused on ends (building a successful team) rather than starting with process. That alone increases the probabilities, A LOT.
- We have yet to learn whether they are willing to take the risks associated with making dire changes ... but we're going to find that out on September 2nd when the cut-down to the Final-53 occurs.