I saw a lot of great plays and wins growing up in South Florida as a loyal Miami Dolphins football fan. When I was a kid, they were a great team, going to five Super Bowls and winning two. Good times.
In January 1982, the Dolphins hosted a playoff game in Miami against the San Diego Chargers that many consider one of the greatest football games ever played. It is referred to as the “Epic in Miami” — Google it. The Dolphins lost 41-38 in overtime but executed one of the greatest plays in NFL history during the game.
The game started rough for the Dolphins, who were losing 24-0 early on. The Dolphins’ legendary coach, Don Shula, changed quarterbacks, trying to create a comeback spark. Don Strock, the new quarterback, provided the spark Shula wanted, and the team quickly closed the gap to 24-10.
With just 6 seconds left in the first half, the Dolphins had the ball on the Chargers’ 40-yard line, and everyone watching thought they would throw a short pass into field goal range and call a timeout. Strock did throw a short pass over the middle, as expected, but the receiver, Duriel Harris, surprised everyone and executed a perfect “hook and lateral play” to Tony Nathan for a touchdown as the half ended. I occasionally watch that play and still get goosebumps when I recall viewing it live with my brother and dad.
The Dolphins executed an amazing play, one of the best ever. They celebrated that play, but still lost the game. In almost every sports matchup, the losing team has some great plays. A corner kick in the goal, a great three-point shot, and a homerun are all examples of plays that are celebrated during a game. However, a great play does not guarantee a win, and often a team that enjoys a great play still loses the game.
Celebrating plays as if they were wins is a dangerous trap that can ensnare business leaders. I love to celebrate great plays with our team, but if we consider those great plays as if we had won the game, we will be celebrating while on a dangerous path. It is essential that, as leaders, we and our teams focus on the right things.
An example of focusing on great plays is introducing a new product that your team thinks is great, and may even win a couple of awards, but it doesn’t sell enough units to justify its development. Getting those accolades and awards feels good, but the product’s development was likely a big mistake; you lost in the end. Another example could be that your local newspaper writes a nice article about what a good employer you are for the community, but turnover remains a big and costly problem. Getting the article was a nice play — it feels good and is fun to read — but you are still losing the game.
Most leaders are looking for ways to feel good about themselves and their leadership. Celebrating the wrong things accomplishes that but can also be a form of self-deception that disguises underperformance.
To avoid self-deception and underperformance, leaders must keep their team focused on the right things; therefore, clearly defining a win is critical. Don’t get me wrong, we should still celebrate great plays. It’s an integral part of keeping a team energized; just don’t celebrate them as if the game was won.
So how do we differentiate between great plays and actual wins? Here are a few ideas to help you.
• A win should include monetization. In other words, a win is something that provides a return on your investments and transfers money to your organization. Some will quickly think that we should not make everything about money, and at Correct Craft, where cultural and eternal returns are also important, we don’t. However, even purpose-driven cultures like ours require great financial results to fund both our philanthropy and investments back into our team.
• A win can also be an improvement in your business model that makes the company stronger and more sustainable. I often say the best thing we can do for our employees is develop and perpetuate a business model that assures them a great job at a great company for as long as they want to work.
• An increase in market share could be a win if it does not come at the cost of financial results. In other words, a market share increase that is driven by reduced pricing or rebates would likely not be a win.
A few years ago, I read the classic book Infinite and Finite Games by James P. Carse. Carse argues that some games are finite, like football, because they have specific teams, specific rules and a time frame after which a winner is declared. It is easy to declare a winner in finite games.
However, business is an infinite game because players come and go, there are no specific rules, and the game never ends. The main objective of an infinite game is to keep the game going. Because our teams play an infinite game, defining a win is more complex but still extremely important.
As a CEO, I consider creating clarity one of my primary roles. A leader needs to clarify their organization’s mission, vision, why, values and strategic plan. Part of creating clarity is ensuring that everyone understands what constitutes a win. If we get this right, our team will be working toward the right goals and significantly increase our chance of success.
Bill Yeargin is CEO of Correct Craft and the author of the best-selling book Education of a CEO.
This article was originally published in the May 2022 issue.