Later this evening Super Bowl XLIX is played. One of the teams playing has reached it more frequently than any other team in recent decades. The Patriots are a remarkable team, that we could learn a lot from about product development and winning against the competition in a highly competitive market (disclaimer – I always hope the Patriots loose so this is not a fan post).
Rarely has a team performed consecutively at such high a level for so long. That fact alone proofs that it can not just be explained as luck or random variation. There must be something fundamentally right about what they do. That I think is to be found in their culture. I think that culture could be transplanted into product development as well. After all some companies, like the Patriots, also consecutively produce amazing products.
The secret sauce
I read too many sports books, I know, but I excuse myself with the slim possibility that what I read could potentially be transferable to real life. Some years ago I read “Patriot Reign” by Michael Holley. He was the first to gain continuous access to Bill Belichick and the Patriots over a period of two years. And Belichick is the key to understand Patriots success and their secret sauce.
When Bill Belichick came to the Patriots they were nothing special. They had a losing record and no one expected anything from them. One of the first controversial moves was firing all-star quarterback Drew Bledsoe and substituting him with a 6th round draft pick rookie quarterback: Tom Brady. This move, in my opinion describes what is truly unique about the Patriots.
What this move shows is that the organization is a rigid meritocracy. It doesn’t matter what you did last year or even five minutes ago; it is what you are doing now that counts. It also means that you don’t hire the rock stars and if you do be ready to fire them the minute they don’t perform. A meritocracy is built around rewarding performance continuously. This is opposed to being rewarded for friendship with management, good looks, past achievements, loyalty or even a good sense of humour (although these things can be very good).
In a meritocracy you trust potential when it is demonstrated and give inexperienced employees a chance if they have proven worthy. Now this means that you also have to have a good idea about what merit is, that is, what counts as good and what counts as bad. If you are developing new products a 40 yard dash may not be the thing like it is for a football team.
Establishing a framework for merit
What you need to do is to establish a framework for merit. This framework doesn’t have to be very formal. You actually just have to have an idea of what good performance is and then measure employees up against this.
These performance goals should however be tightly aligned with the strategy of the company and the industry it is in. The Patriots are not necessarily looking at the same KPIs as everyone else. They have found their own KPIs based on their analysis of the game. This is interestingly visible in the recent “Inflateagate”: It was discovered that the balls the Patriots played with were not properly inflated. Puzzling as that information it is tied very closely to strategy and performance goals. A recent article by Warren sharp uncovers the reason
The article starts from a peculiar fact: The Patriots were freakishly outperforming all other teams in number of plays per fumble since 2006 when a new rule was made that allowed you to bring your won balls. Why are fumbles important? It turns out that you significantly increase your chance of winning a game if you have fewer fumbles than your opponent. The more plays you have per fumble the better.
Part of the Patriots strategy was to improve plays per fumble, since this would increase their chance of winning. One way of doing this is to deflate the balls, but I am sure that fumble ratio is a very important parameter in player evaluations as well.
From Super Bowls to Super products
This is an example of how an analysis of the game or market if you are a tech company can help you spot a weakness to exploit. The challenge is then to find a KPI and establish a framework of merit for evaluating performance and then implement a rigid meritocracy around these insights. Doing that will help you consecutively outperform the competition because your organization will consecutively produce super products.