What Jack Taylor can teach us about strategy

Half-way between the cities of Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, IA sits the Darby gymnasium. In its cozy rafters hang banners that tell of the records set by Grinnell’s men’s basketball team. The banners point to an unusual style of play: Grinnell has more “point champions” than national championships.

Grinnell’s strategy is simply to take as many shots as possible, defend the entire length of the court for the whole game (full-court press) and wear the other team down. In a game on November 18, 2013, Grinnell’s Jack Taylor scored 109 points and took 70 shots. The team won by the score of 173-123.

For anyone who has played basketball, you know just how difficult it would be to take this many shots and how unorthodox Grinnell’s style of play is. In an interview with Jack Taylor, he was asked, “it’s clearly successful. Why don’t other schools run this system?” Taylor responds as follows:

I think it’s difficult to implement. It’s hard to get a lot of players to buy in to such a unique system. Because it is such a crazy way to play the game. Our team it just so unselfish and we have all committed to it and I think that is what makes it successful.

There are a many lessons that could be drawn from Taylor’s words and Grinnell’s strategy, but I will pull out a couple.

First, sometime winning requires that you play the game in a way that the rest of the world sees as undignified. I can just see players, coaches and fans of opposing teams saying “this isn’t basketball!” as Grinnell is handily defeating them.

In your life or in your work, what does unorthodox play look like? Are operating the same as the rest of the world? Or have you picked a strategy that relies on key strengths that you have. Are you willing to do things that others are not?

Second, the more shots you take the more you will miss. Jack Taylor missed 35 shots on his way to scoring 109 points. Most players would be humiliated with 35 misses, but Taylor knows that part of his strategy will entail missing shots.

Are you willing to take a lot of shots? Can you live with failure if it means learning and having more wins? Are you accepting of the failures in others? Taylor’s team continues to pass him the ball, even after he misses five, six, or seven shots in a row. IT DOES NOT MATTER, they keep passing him the ball because they understand and buy into the strategy. Do you operate like this?

There is much to be learned from Grinnell and Jack Taylor. In fact, Malcom Gladwell has written an entire book about these kinds of stories. I just finished reading David and Goliath a few weeks ago and would I’d highly recommend it.

Push yourself to do something unorthodox and learn to embrace failures.

I got my city right behind me

Birmingham skyline (source: britannica, photo credit Mark Segal – Stone/Getty Images )

“I got my city right behind me
If I fall, they got me. Learn from that failure gain humility and then we keep marching ourselves” – Macklemore

Failure helps keep us humble. Failure is essential to learning. But failing without support leads to hopelessness. Failing with a community allows you to grow stronger while remaining humble. You know that this life is not all about you. It’s only because of your “city” that you can do anything.

Who do you have behind you? Are you in a position where you can fail? Can you take a risk and know that it won’t cost you your job? Can you experiment with a new way of doing things without getting funny looks?

If you have a “city” behind you, congratulations. You are in a great spot. Not many people are in a position where their failures are looked upon as a necessary step in a life long journey or growth. You can be vulnerable and real with your friends, family and co-workers. You can take risks. You have a community – use it.

But what if you don’t have a “city” behind you?

First off, you are not alone even though it may seem like you are. Find your city. Find those are willing to accept your failure. Find those that will show you grace and patience. Find those who care about who you are as a person.

Secondly, be the city to other people. Forgive mistakes quickly. Applaud risk taking and approaching problems differently then you would have. Be the kind of co-worker, friend, spouse, etc that you would want others to be to you.

Almost anyone who has had any success, professionally or personally, has a story about failure. As you write your own story, don’t shy away from taking risk, just for the fear of failure. Get your city behind you and stay humble.

Chicken soup for the innovator’s soul

Source: PBS

I asked a co-worker the other day, “should I question my priorities in life when I get completely geeked out when my new issue of the Harvard Business Review shows up?” Wait…don’t answer that. Because I do get really excited.

Here is some more gold from the HBR. Jason Seiken of PBS, discusses how he pushed his team to fail. Not just pay lip service to the idea of failure, but to actually fail. And what was the result? Did Seiken get fired? Did ratings, clicks, viewers, etc at PBS decline?

Exactly the opposite. This mindset – embracing failure and taking risks let Seiken and PBS to some huge wins.

If you have read much of my blog, it won’t surprise you that I find what Seiken did at PBS to be incredibly inspirational. I just love hearing these stories. This is chicken soup for my soul.

Sometimes what you need to do to be successful is the opposite of what everyone else is telling you. The first are last. The last are first. Winning is losing. Losing is winning.

Great stuff Jason. Thanks for your leadership and sharing your story with HBR.

Please read the entire blog entry here:


Here are some of my favorite quotes:

Business-school literature has long stressed the importance of taking risks and encouraging rapid failure. In the real world of quarterly numbers, though, embracing failure mostly remains a throwaway line in CEO speeches.

So when I joined the company in December 2006, I decided to deliver a shock to the system. Soon after arriving at PBS, I called the digital team into a conference room and announced we were ripping up everyone’s annual performance goals and adding a new metric. – Failure.

Because if you’re not failing enough, you’re playing it safe.

We learned that to make the culture change stick, we needed to be both radical and incremental.

Radical because we needed to establish audacious goals to inspire the team. Incremental because, well, we didn’t want to get fired. (And because it’s a rare organization able to swallow significant change in one gulp.)

By making failure a requirement, I had shocked them into taking the message seriously. Sometimes it takes a stunt to push people — and organizations — out of their comfort zones and on to lasting change.

In the arena

Three weeks ago, I decided to write a post every day for a whole month (see Talker’s Block). I wasn’t exactly sure at the time what I would get out of the challenge, but I felt compelled to stretch myself. (I say stretch, but this “challenge” ranks pretty low on my list of real challenges.)

While I still have a week to keep blogging, I am learning about the benefits of bad writing.

When you write every day, sometimes what you write is good and sometimes is it bad. But the magic comes in writing frequently. You start to recognize good writing. You understand what is “good” for you and you long to write the good stuff.

Trying over and over again is always a good strategy. Failing at something breeds character. Writing bad blog posts helps you to truly appreciate the good posts.

I want to be action oriented. Attempting new challenges with no guarantee of a positive outcome. I was reminded of Theodore Roosevelt quote that is perfect for this mindset:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

I love this whole quote, but I am particularly fond of “because there is no effort without error and shortcoming.”

The real challenge for me is not blogging daily. The real challenge is pushing myself to the point where I have errors and shortcomings. And staying committed to that ideal even when others aren’t as accepting of my shortcomings.

So join me in 1) giving up being a critic and 2) jumping into the arena. Write poorly, but write. Give a poor presentation, but give a presentation. Have a frustrating conversation with your spouse, but have a conversation. Join me in the arena.

Never ending work

When I travel, I am continually amazed at the lack of good design in airports. Check out the picture above. This is the scene that confronted me this morning as I waited for my bag in the jetway. We wait in a long line, then when our bag comes we go grab it, only to bump into every other passenger trying to grab his or her bag. This setup is by default, not by design. But why should this surprise me, you or anyone else?

Good design is hard. Really, really hard.

Hard, but not impossible. Running 26 miles is also hard, but many can do it with the right training.

I believe the most important tool for good design is empathy. The training mostly involves taking a stand, trying something, failing and then trying again to make it better.

It is an art – not a science. And one thing I am beginning to love and hate about making art – it is never finished. The artist is always trying to make “better” art.

Good design is hard because it requires time. Time to plan. Time to observe. Time to collaborate with others. Time to test. Time to refine.

Who has this kind of time? You do. I do. We all do. If you are doing something important (aside: what are you doing that is not meaningful in some way?) then it is worth taking the time to make your doing is “by design” not “by default”.

I failed on this front just yesterday (another entry for the #FAIL folder!)

I was leading an important meeting for our department to discuss some recent changes that occurred in the organization. I walked into the meeting having given it only a couple minutes of thought. This important meeting was being run by default, not by design.

How could I have designed this meeting?

Step 0: gain some empathy for the team
Step 1: establish the goal is for the meeting
Step 2: think through what behaviors would help accomplish the goal
Step 3: bounce this plan off of someone else
Step 4: refine based on feedback
Step 5: have meeting
Step 6: evaluate the meeting to see if goals were met
Step 7: use experience to do this better next time

This may sound tedious, but remember good design doesn’t happen by chance. It takes hard work.

While I’m a fan of learning from failures, I think a better approach is attempting to design for success – not to launch into something saying “this is probably going to fail, but I’ll learn something.” What is it you want to learn? Write those things down and see if after you learned them after you are done. If you didn’t you need another test.

But testing again is ok. Because like I said designing is making art. It’s never finished. It’s never ending work. But that’s a great challenge. There is always an opportunity to improve.

For me, it’s oddly freeing to know that I can never “arrive.” I am on a journey that I can never complete. This would lead (and has led) many to despair.

It’s freeing for me because if you can’t “arrive”, then the joy must be in the actual journey.

I am enjoying the journey.

Creating a #FAIL folder

Last year I created a folder in evernote (I am a huge evernote fan) with the title of “winning.” The idea was that I would forward complimentary emails and notes or add an entry after a successful project, presentation, etc. I think it is important to look back and reflect upon past successes.

That said, I am a huge believer in accepting failure. I love the term “failing forward.”

Almost everyone I admire has had some substantial failures in their lives. They are willing to talk about the events, what they have learned, and how they have grown due to having failed in one way or another. In addition, there are thousands of millionaires in Silicon Valley that have embraced this idea. It has allowed for substantial risk taking and resulted in unprecedented innovation.

This very spirit is embodied in Intuit’s Scott Cook. I love the quote below…

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This article is awesome! Click here for the full version.

Cook gets that failure is a part of learning. It’s refreshing to hear successful people talk about failure. It tends to put me at ease. I know I am hearing from a REAL person, who has made REAL mistakes…just like the same mistakes I make.

With all this in mind, I decided to create a #FAIL folder in evernote. Just like I want to keep track of successes, I should also be noting where I have failed.

I got this idea from Tina Seelig. In one of her courses at Stanford, she would have all the student’s write a #FAIL resume. Think upon this exercise for a moment. Think about how much time you may have spent making your real resume stand out. How you emphazise the resposibility and achievements you may have had from each job. You might even have a professional review and/or write the resume.

Consider spending a similar amount of time on your #FAIL resume. Brainstorm how to make it clear just how badly you f’d up that project at work. Or how you bad you were as a boss…don’t hold back. But just as important, what was it you learned from the failure. This is why Scott Cook is ok with faulure…it enables him to get smarter, wiser, more experienced, etc faster than he would have been if he didn’t fail.

So fill up your fail resume and folder with all sorts of failures. It will help you make sure you are learning from your mistakes.

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