Doing What It Takes
Monday morning in the bowels of the local football shrine.
Fifty-eight-plus hulking millionaires sit licking their collective wounds, watching a flickering image at the front of the room while one man with a laser pointer picks apart their performance of the previous day.
"You missed that block, Johnson. Have you never seen a stunt before? And Bellikowski, look here . . . what were you thinking?"
It's a scene played out in 31 NFL cities after every game, win or lose. The coaching staff have spent much of the previous 12 hours poring over the film record of every player's on-field performance. And now it's time for the reckoning.
The objective is not punitive, although clearly some careers live and die in the unforgiving light of the video-camera. Rather, it is improvement. Constant, unrelenting improvement, in execution and in knowledge of the competition's ability. The goal? Positive results next Sunday.
Football teams are not the only ones to dissect their efforts. Baseball's gazillionaires, too, are infamous for finding minute hitches in their swings or faulty pitch release points after they study tape.
Now that business executives are being showered with enormous compensation packages - in the same stratosphere as star athletes - shouldn't we expect similar post mortem examinations of their performance as a matter of course? After all, what's at stake is a bit more than a friendly wager or bragging rights. It could be people's pension nest eggs . . . or livelihoods.
Does the public allow sports figures to retreat or make excuses for losing or to utter 'no comment'? Can an athlete who has lost or performed below his personal best escape the camera to explain not just what happened but why and what he or she is planning to avoid a recurrence? Not a chance.
Should business executives expect any less than to be required to analyze their failures admit errors and provide plans to avoid repetition? Can't see why they should.
Is the baseball or football game more important? Are business people untouchable, their egos too fragile, to allow their actions to be examined under a microscope? Are they above asking coaches and other experts to give them an objective view on what can be done to improve the odds of success? It takes some kind of chutzpah to suggest a negative answer to any of those questions.
If there were a rigorous process of examining the impact of decisions after the fact, the CEO would clearly be better equipped to explain the results to outside critics rather than relying on his memory or oversimplified truisms. Engineers constantly examine designs that work and endure the rigors of use. Lawyers use precedent as their basis of action. Neither profession would dream of leaning on long-ago learning and current intuition as the key sources for decision-making. Who would choose a doctor who does not consult on the diagnosis, or who does not keep up to date on developments? Peer reviews are standard procedure in most professions. Why not for business cases?
Imagine this: The CEO of XYZ Ltd. calls a meeting of his senior executives shortly after they announce a decision to close a plant, abandon a business segment or lay off thousands of employees.
Taking the floor at the front of the boardroom, the CEO opens the discussion by saying: "Ladies and gentlemen, we have just announced a decision that deals a body blow to our shareholders and our fellow employees. What went wrong? When did it go wrong? How could we have been more sensitive, read the signs earlier? The meeting will be over when we get the answers. Any questions?"
Think that happens? Not so's you'd notice. But what if the CEO then said this: "I have asked Joe and Susan from Garfinkel and Hudson to help us with this examination."
Athletes of all kinds are constantly seeking outside opinions from proven experts, looking for often minute adjustments that will enable them to improve. These coaches and experts may not be able to perform at the level of the people they advise, but they do provide invaluable input, the dispassionate outside perspective, the softer focus on events that may be happening at the periphery of the company's vision.
Or consider this. Suppose, before opening up the floor for discussion, our CEO said one more thing: "And Joe and Susan have tapes."
Imagine the silence. Imagine the message that would send: we expect people who are compensated at an elite level to perform at that level . . . or do their damnedest to get there. And you can't hide.
Video recording is not as cheap as a paper copying machine, but in the big picture it's close enough. Why do we not use it more in business to record the decision process for future reference? And do it both for the hits and the misses.
When sports teams review performance on tape, they do not cut players for single mistakes or imperfect executions, although clearly they will for failure to learn, for not trying to improve or for not accepting coaching. Is that a bad thing? Surely that process can cut through the clutter of organizational politics in favor of real meritocracy.
Now, obviously, putting video cameras in board and meeting rooms would be an enormous shock to most organizations. But clearly, as misjudgments and miscalculations continue to manifest themselves in job losses, profit squeezes and share price erosion, executives and directors need better tools to examine their decision making. Maybe not video, but then again, why not?
Business people, like athletes, cannot expect to hit a home run on every play, but they are fully capable of studying performance -- using, accumulating statistics and profiting from improved execution. This analysis would give business schools better empirical tools, whether they use the case method or not. And ultimately, it would improve business performance which not only helps executives and boards, but also translates into better times for customers and employees.
In the end, whether the game is business or sports, the devil is in the details. Improving a golf swing, a slider or a balance sheet is a detailed and subtle business. All need critical analysis, perhaps even slow-motion, frame-by-frame examination and a comprehensive understanding of the mechanics.
It all begins with the recognition that performance excellence is the imperative. And getting there requires help.
Bob Ferchat -- former chief executive of companies such as Bell Mobility
and Northern Telecom Canada -- and Tony Carlson are the principals of I-Magin-ation
Inc., a Mississauga-based company focused on developing innovative content
for the Internet. Their book series, Soft Focus - an analysis of why
big companies miss technology opportunities that are staring them in the face
- is available through their website at