The Single Playbook Executive – What Venture-Backed Executives Can Learn From NFL Coaches
There used to be a single playbook in the NFL built around a simple philosophy – running and defense wins championships. The entire operating approach of teams was centered on this singular belief. The prototypical example of this was the 1986 Chicago Bears – think Buddy Ryan-coached defense with Mike Singletary and William “The Refrigerator” Perry. Think about a running game led by none other than Walter Payton. That was a dominant team with the right playbook for that era.
But the rules of the NFL have changed – literally. The rules have slowly been re-engineered in the league to preferentially protect wide receivers and quarterbacks. Hit a quarterback the wrong way, and you’ll get a penalty. Touch a wide receiver after 5 yards, and you’ll get a penalty. Literally, the rules have changed, to support a more exciting brand of football that revolves around the passing game. It’s no wonder that four of the best teams in the league – Indianapolis Colts, New Orleans Saints, New England Patriots and San Diego Chargers are pass first teams led by quarterbacks Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, and Philip Rivers, respectively.
Over the last several years, some NFL teams have learned a new playbook because the rules of the game have changed. Others have not adapted. I have always thought that this was a great analogy for the technology landscape and the executives that operate in this world. I’d argue that in the world of venture-backed technology companies, the rules of the game change dramatically faster than in the NFL. That puts a burden on executives living in this world to adapt.
Beware of the “single playbook” executive. They have one blueprint and they apply that blueprint for any situation they’re in. They use that blueprint because they’ve had success with it – maybe great success with it. They bring in the same people that were succesful with that blueprint. But, it’s dangerous to be a single playbook executive if the rules of the game are changing all around you. Therein lies the lesson I think that executives in venture-backed companies can learn from NFL coaches– your playbook has to take into account the changing rules of the game.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I, like many VCs, love to back successful executives who have a proven and successful playbook. But, there is a reason that many new entrepreneurs are finding great success without a proven historical playbook– it’s because their playbooks are being built for the rules of the game as it stands today. Successful venture-backed executives have to adapt their playbook or they should beware of the up and coming executives who don’t care how things were done before and only care about how to win today.