Business Lessons From The Football Field: Knowing The Difference Between Yardage And Points

The universal goal of management for companies and startups alike is to reach business objectives with the smallest possible investment of time and money.  In a busy environment like a startup, managing the ongoing stream of tasks and goal setting is an art which requires judgement and careful discernment. In the fray of getting things done, is there a compass for making sure that we are getting the most from our time and activity?

Moving the ball is important, with an eye on the end zone. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A comparison to the world of sports is instructive: In football and soccer there is a big difference between points and yardage. We all understand the world of difference between scoring points and simply moving the ball down the field. For individuals and organizations alike, it is never enough to simply move the ball: In the absence of scoring points, moving the ball is meaningless.

A common problem is that successfully moving the ball feels good. Likewise in business we are rewarded with a sense of accomplishment when we get tasks done. Finishing a document, writing a module of code, sending an email, each in their own way feel good – we can take pride in getting each and every task done. However, there is a danger in feeling a sense of accomplishment for the small tasks that we get done: Without proper management, this pattern can become a substitute for actually putting points on the board.

When a software team rewrites a module of code for the third time, is there really a cause to celebrate? The team feels pride in getting it done. The team knows that their software is going to run faster, be ‘cleaner’, and have better testing. The fact is that none of these accomplishments matter AT ALL until they are put in front of customers! The sense of accomplishment at getting tasks done can be a dangerous illusion.

In starting a new business, it can be exciting to set up your office, arrange the furniture, head out to the store and pick out a new printer, etc. These things feel contributory to the business, and are rewarding to think through and get done. It can be jarring to realize that none of these tasks matter unless and until your business starts making money. At the point when you do start making money, a look back may show you that much of what you did to get to that point didn’t matter at all (although may have felt good in the accomplishment).

In a personal example, I recall my parents beaming with pride at the fact that they bought a treadmill to exercise with. They needed to lose weight, and made a substantial investment: Hours spent shopping for the perfect machine, a payment in excess of a thousand dollars, the scheduling of a delivery truck, and finally hand assembly by both of them. The punchline is that they never used it, but had a real sense of accomplishment for having bought it and having installed it. It felt good for them to get this done, and felt like a measurable piece of progress toward their goal (while being a complete waste of time). Buying a treadmill and never using it is a gold-plated, diamond-encrusted example of mistaking yardage for points. (Though quite to the contrary if they had actually used it and gotten healthier.)

Managers and entrepreneurs have the responsibility to define what constitutes points, and what constitutes yardage in their business — and then to act accordingly. We know that a team can make hundreds of yards of progress and still lose the game:Points are what win games. Points are what you read about in the sports section of the newspaper. Points are what get put into the record books. Points are what we celebrate with a backflip and a high five. Yardage is necessary, but only in pursuit of your ultimate goal of making money, delivering sales, and putting products in front of customers.

A question for you: What is the next measurable way that you are going to put points on the board in your business?

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Kevin Ready

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