Thinking About Thinking

The Single Playbook Executive – What Venture-Backed Executives Can Learn From NFL Coaches

Posted in Technology, Venture Capital by larrycheng on November 22, 2009

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. 

5 Responses

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  1. Thom Mitchell said, on December 8, 2009 at 12:15 pm

    Larry, this is a great point. And it applies not only to the corner office and VC-backed companies, but to almost any company, especially those filling VP and director level roles. How many times have companies brought somebody new into a role whose sole purpose was to do what that person had done before elsewhere at a different company? Even though it might be a new industry? Or maybe the marketplace has changed because of new competitors?

    Witness how many former GE executives groomed under Jack Welsh that haven’t had the same kind of success after leaving GE because they tried to run the old GE playbook in a new competitive landscape. This is what happens when you, or your company, is a “one-trick pony”.

  2. Chris said, on December 8, 2009 at 5:14 pm


    Great article. Really hits home that we can’t just hold fast to the same old method again and again. In the last two decades the so called establishment that was the standard for everything we do has disappeared and a lot of people refuse to see it or just wish it was still there and try and play by those rules. Because of that they are just flipping the coin and hoping for success.

    Thanks for the article,


  3. neilrshah said, on December 8, 2009 at 5:42 pm

    Great article,

    That is one of my favorite things about football. It is a complex game with many rules and many strategies. Because it is composed of the top athletes across the world, leadership really matters in football. There are so many analogies in football (and other sports) to teamwork, leadership, adaptation and reaction, and organizational design and change.

    In my mind, leadership in sports is one of the most inspiring types of leadership there is. The athletes are all the best in the world. The rules are universal. The media is watching every move that you can make and people spend all Sunday observing and questioning the moves made by head coaches.

    Anyway, love the blog. Keep it up.

    Neil Shah

  4. Who Dat said, on February 1, 2010 at 2:51 am

    I have been saying the same thing for years. My beloved New Orleans Saints have become one of the premier offenses in the league with Drew Brees leading the aerial assault. And that is fine by me as long as they are winning which they are this year. But if you look at 2007 and 2008 they ended up with a 7-9 record and 8-8 record respectively. I sometimes long for those years of the Dome Patrol when we had an outstanding linebacking corps. Even during the Haslett years I assumed we would have had a better defense since he was a defensive minded coach and a former linebacker himself.

  5. Folkus said, on February 3, 2010 at 2:21 am

    We’re stupid pumped about Sunday’s game. It’s a offensive shoot out. I’ll pick the NO Saints in a nail bighter.

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