Today’s blog is about a sea change. The change includes elements
from the field of complexity science. For good measure, there are also
sprinklings from Peter Senge’s 1990 book, The Fifth Discipline.
Amazon lists 90,852 “results” for books about change management.
I’m sure there a numerous other examples represented in these books
that relate to this story.
I have a fascination with circumstances where the conventional or status
quo is displaced/disrupted by the unconventional. Sometimes the changes
occur so subtly they’re almost imperceptible until the old is gone
(Oldsmobile). Sometimes the changes happen very quickly (Blackberry).
Seldom do we notice the change if it occurs gradually or in an area we
don’t have an interest. In this instance, I was fortunate to be
at the right place at the right time.
The story takes place on the football field but it isn’t so much
about football as it is about transformation. I call this transformational
because a new system emerged that was not constrained by the boundaries
of the past. This wasn’t about an incremental tweaking or a fixing
of the present. This was radically different and outcomes were the proof.
The background is Texas High School football circa 2000 forward. This is
not a rehash of Friday Night Lights” (neither the book or television
show). This is also not a social commentary on the importance Texans place
on football (evidenced by the state record 54,347 fans that recently attended
the State 5A Championship game-more then attended the last Sugar Bowl).
Malcolm Gladwell’s recent book, David and Goliath, chronicles examples
throughout history of the small defeating the proverbial superior. This
is one he missed. This story is not a metaphor about sports and business.
This story is about bottom-up emergence, adaptation, disruption and interactions
between participants. There are substantial amounts of coaching, personal
mastery, team learning, mental model formation and striving for excellence
mixed in. Two out of the past three Heisman Trophy winners are direct
products of this system.
As in all good stories there’s a cast of characters. However, for
simplicity, I’m only going to mention three key people. Art Briles,
Todd Dodge and Gus Malzahn are three former high school football coaches.
Briles and Dodge coached in Texas and Malzahn in Arkansas. The three of
them have combined to win 11 state high school football championships
and have made numerous more appearances in the championship game. Dodge
led Southlake to three consecutive mythical High School National Championships
in 2004, 2005 and 2006. Briles and Malzahn have both left high school
coaching to become high profile, Division I college coaches at Baylor
and Auburn, respectively.
My family moved to Texas in 2000. Coincidentally, the same year Todd Dodge
became the football coach at Southlake, Texas. Having heard all the talk
about Texas high school football, one Friday in October I decided to see
if the reality was anywhere close to the hype. It was sheer serendipity
I chose a Southlake game. I did not realize that night would launch a
decade long fascination with Texas high school football. As I recall,
Southlake won the game by about forty points. What was so memorable, however,
was the offense. It was no huddle, a mixture of passing and running, and
very, very fast paced. In fact, after a successful play the next play
started as soon as the players were lined up. At first, it looked like
sheer chaos. I had seen no huddle offenses before and what were known
at the time, as “run and shoot” but those mostly focused on
passing. This was a combination of precision, speed, execution and outcome
that was exhilarating. This resembled fast break basketball more than
football. Under Dodge, Southlake finished with a 9-5 record in 2000 and
the following year 8-3. The second year, however, they made it to the
semi-final round of the state playoffs before losing. The inflection point
came in 2002. The team went 16-0, won the state championship and averaged
about 45 points a game. I didn’t see every game but remember the
outcome was usually determined by halftime. The team’s play was
so dominant I left some games with a feeling of unfairness. At first,
very few teams were running this spread-type offense and certainly no
one was running it as effectively as Southlake. Based on memory, probably
no more than 4 or 5 teams ran this offense during those first three years.
By the 2006 season, however, about two-thirds of the teams had adopted
the spread and by 2010 at least 90 percent of the teams were spread offense
oriented. I was witnessing complex adaptive systems at work.
The spread offense wasn’t a “new invention” to football.
In fact, we moved to Texas from Kentucky where the new University of Kentucky
coach had implemented a “spread-type” offense and his quarterback,
Tim Couch, who was the first pick in the 1999 NFL draft. Even in the stodgy
Big Ten, with its history of “3 yards and a cloud of dust,”
Northwestern adopted the spread-offense and in November 2000 beat Michigan
54-51 and became conference co-champions. Based upon some very limited
research and a few discussions with old-time Texas high school football
aficionados, I learned the Texas-strain of the spread offense had its
roots as far back as the 1920s and the Fort Worth Masonic Home and School
(since closed). I also learned Dodge wasn’t even considered the
godfather of the modern day spread offense in Texas. This title went to
a former Stephenville High School coach by the name of Art Briles. He
adopted the spread offense and won 4 state championships back in the mid-nineties.
In 1998, his team accounted for 8,664 total yards breaking a 73 year old
national high school record.
In the corporate world, I would characterize the spread offense as a break-through
“innovation.” To be effective, it requires personal mastery
at the quarterback, running back and receiver positions. A quarterback
that can run and pass is optimal. The execution relies upon the speed
and coordination of the offensive team not slowing down to huddle. It
requires a team capable of quickly processing information and executing.
Because the concept relies upon speed, finesse and agility rather than
brute strength and size, it opens the door to a wider talent base of athletes
(the system interacting and forming different relationships). It has become
a sort of equalizer between brawn and speed. This has resulted in numerous
stories of underdogs winning.
The Southlake story captivated me because on first impression you wonder
how 16, 17 and 18 year-olds can perform at this level. At times, it appeared
to be organized chaos and at other times disorganized chaos. The challenges
coaches faced in finding players with entirely new skillsets was intense.
The playing field was now the entire width of the field. Coaches and players
had to see the environment differently. The number of offensive plays
being run expanded dramatically. Based upon my limited research, the laboratories
for developing this offense were high school teams. This wasn’t
about the top of the pyramid (NFL) developing something and then watching
it cascaded downstream. The bottom of the pyramid innovated and then the
innovations were carried upstream through coaching promotions (emergence).
The football “environment” adapted to the need for talent
for the “new” system. Texas had been recognized as the land
of the running back (Campbell, Dickerson, Thomas, Walker, Sims etc). Finding
quarterbacks to run the new system was a new challenge. But as complexity
science tell us complex adaptive systems find solutions. In 1996, 7-on7
summer football was born in Texas. Quarterback summer school was now in
session. This became the training ground for the spread offense quarterbacks,
wide receivers and defensive backs. The impact? In 2011, twelve NFL starting
quarterbacks came from Texas high schools.
Unlike corporate America where innovations can be protected with patents
and copyrights, sports innovations become immediately discoverable. Games
are filmed, coaches give clinics, winning teams get publicity, plays are
copied and continuous improvement occurs. The spread offense has become
the standard in Texas High School football. I looked for a genealogy tree
of spread offense coaches but was unsuccessful. I’m sure most coaches
never gave any thought to The Fifth Discipline, complexity science or
chaos theory as they developed and implemented the new offense. I’m
sure self-preservation and the need to win were primary drivers. I’m
also sure most business leaders don’t think the emergence of a spread
offense-like concept is comparable to the introduction of an industry-changing,
innovative idea. Interestingly, the folks at The Boston Consulting Group
produced a report “The Most Adaptive Companies in 2012.” Hmmmm.
Reflecting on the last ten-plus years of my sojourns to high school football
games, I think about all the change I’ve witnessed. The amount of
innovation is amazing. Finding coaches/leaders able to teach people in
an emergent environment became a priority? Football coaches have often
given me the impression that command-and-control was a fine way to run
a team (Paul “Bear” Bryant, Woody Hayes, Vince Lombardi, Nick
Saban don’t appear to be the prototype of shared leadership). What
does leadership in an adaptive environment look like? How do you create
an environment of discipline based upon commitment and not compliance?
Can you recruit people looking to being collaborative? What does an adaptive
team look like? Mental models need to be changed. Personal mastery becomes
a priority. This is not an easy journey.
Better than half my career was conducted under management and leadership
theories of Frederick Winslow Taylor created in the early 1900’s.
Scientific management, as its generic name, still influences how many
organizations are run today. Last year I read an article in Forbes about
how the military is rethinking its leadership practices. The article explained
how over the last thirty years the military has changed its leadership
practices from “the hierarchical and paternalistic” approach
of my father’s army (WWII).
At the end of the day, I believe innovation has tremendous benefits. Earlier
this year, Zappos, the Las Vegas-based retailer, announced a move to an
organization structure by the name of “holacracy.” As I understood
the press release, the purpose is to prevent the company from becoming
“too bureaucratic.” Is it a fad? Hell, if I know. I’m
sure this seems as crazy to many as the first time they saw a football
team play without a huddle. I’m sure many old-time coaches claimed
the spread to be a fad and went on playing like they always did. My guess
is a very high percentage of American businesses are still highly influenced
by Taylorism thoughts and theories from the early 1900’s. I recently
listened to the Southwest Airlines 2013 investor call. The CEO announced
their 41st consecutive year of profitability and record breaking performance
on a number of indicators. When this airline was just beginning, the competitors
discounted them as a passing fad. They broke almost every “industry
norm” during their startup. In my lifetime, I’ve become used
to the “faddy” organization struggling and fighting all the
way to the top of their industry or creating a whole new industry. In
my relatively small healthcare environment of Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas,
I’m witnessing new competitors entering the healthcare marketplace
with “different” approaches. I don’t know if there’s
an Apple, Southwest, Toyota lurking among them. I do know as a healthcare
consumer, I’m willing to check them out and see what the “hype”
is all about.