Retweeted by thousands, this was Buffalo Bills’ quarterback Josh Allen’s one-word reaction to the Cincinnati Bengals’ losing the coin toss this past Sunday. It reflected his own emotion from a week ago, and Allen knew 10 of 11 playoff games going into overtime had been won by teams that won the coin toss.
For fans watching the AFC and NFC semi-finals and championships, the finger-biting moments of the last two weeks may sum up to the lesson that it’s just about luck, and playing games.
Instead, the road to Super Bowl LVI year showcases five insights regarding enterprise and markets that apply as much to business as to sports.
Continuous improvement is the ticket that matters.
Josh Allen himself is a poster-child for this lesson. He was ranked last in every statistical category among draft-eligible quarterbacks in 2018 and caricatured as a half man, half meme. Allen’s incredible turnaround came from an unyielding focus on improving his body mechanics and finding calmness in the midst of competition.
Innate aptitude may be a game of chance, but exceptional players spend a lifetime dedicated to continuous improvement. This is true not only for quarterbacks, but for players in every position on the field.
It is also true in business. Research by J.P Eggers at New York University with Lin Song shows that when entrepreneurs who fail in their first venture blame chance conditions, they are more likely to repeat their mistakes. In contrast, my ongoing research with Hyeonsuh Lee and Sonali Shah at the University of Illinois finds that entrepreneurs who learn from initial failure to adapt their strategies craft follow-on successful ventures and careers.
Business, like football, is a team sport.
High performers need other high performers who complement their skills seamlessly. Matthew Stafford earned the nickname of Stat Padford because his impressive personal statistics did not translate into a single playoff game win in 12 seasons for the Detroit Lions.
Stafford’s contention for Super Bowl LVI in his very first season with the LA Rams is not a matter of chance. It relies on an impressive team assembled by Coach Sean McVay and General Manager Les Snead, including All-Pros Cooper Kupp, Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey, and others. As McVay noted, the NFC championship is “a great sign of the stars shining the brightest when they needed to and then also guys stepping up when they were asked to.”
Outside the sports industry, the same principle applies, as I discovered in research with Moran Lazar and Miriam Erez at Technion, Ella Miron-Spektor at INSEAD, and Gilad Chen and Brent Goldfarb at the University of Maryland. Success accrues to entrepreneurial teams formed with precision–when founders pay attention to who best fills the gaps and who best fits in–as tightly knit pieces of an intricate puzzle.
Human ingenuity fuels techniques and raises overall quality.
For football fans, the adrenaline-pumping, heart-stopping NFC and AFC semi-final and championship games were a culmination of a record breaking 2021 season. This is not only because the players are getting faster and stronger.
Several highly complex gameplays that stole our breath away are made possible by a highly skilled “behind the scene” workforce and new digital technologies. Instead of paper playbooks, teams now rely on instant cloud uploads and dynamic presentations of footage and interactive responses. Data analytics are also key to the NFL’s injury reduction efforts, in partnership with Amazon to crowdsource human ingenuity in artificial intelligence competitions.
Rather than being accidental, better products and services in all domains stem from enterprising individuals and organizations who are motivated by purpose and profit, and rely on markets for trade. Entire industries are born as a result, often addressing some of the grandest challenges of our time. As just one example, mobile money has provided unprecedented financial access to the unbanked poor, especially in the developing world. To do so, financial software startups and established telecommunication operators traded with each other to develop and scale digital platforms, as documented in my research with Serguey Braguinsky and Audra Wormald at the University of Maryland, and Sonali Shah at University of Illinois.
Impartial Enforcement of Transparent Rules of the Game is an Essential Foundation
Hot debates have resurfaced in the past two weeks on whether the NFL should change or keep overtime rules that were last altered in 2017. As the rules stand though, they are transparent and impartially enforced. Thus, there have been no debates on the different outcomes for the Bills and Rams of losing the coin toss for the opening drive of overtime.
Imagine a scenario where different rules apply to different teams, and referees made arbitrary judgments that defied objective challenges and reviews. If whims and fancies mattered more than who played best, or side-deals rigged the outcomes, the entire system would come tumbling down.
Clearly defined and properly enforced rules of the game serve as an essential foundation to sports. So do market institutions that provide clarity and consistency as the basic requirement for trade. A historical analysis by Nobel laureate Douglas North with John Wallis and Barry Weingast showcases that flourishing societies are not chance outcomes of nature. They rely on impersonal rules and fostering of open access, so trade among enterprising individuals and organizations can lead to enhanced individual and social welfare. In contrast, political manipulation of the economy can result in discrimination and cronyism. Protecting monopolies and awarding stimulus dollars to firms contributing to political campaigns leads to stagnation and lower job creation.
Collaboration, not competition is the hallmark of markets and trade
Wins in the regular season determine who makes it to the playoffs, which in turn determine the final two contenders for the Super Bowl. But while competition may be the name of each game, wins are determined through superior collaboration among high performers. This is perhaps why Tom Brady, widely considered the greatest quarterback of all time, repeated a mantra he learned in college: the team, the team, the team.
While any one game may result in a win-lose, all NFL teams gain from an overarching win-win. Each NFL team needs the other. Fans will not fill stadiums if there are no opponents. And nail-biting close games propel each rival to pursue excellence, providing greater enjoyment for fans on each side, win or lose.
People often think that success in business is about beating others in competition. But true success in market based economies comes from excelling in the game. To do so, enterprising leaders have to build alliances, within and across organizations. Competition occurs as a secondary consequence, when those who create more value outperform others.
Chance may well be the proximate driver of who is first among equals. But the road to Super Bowl LXI illustrates how high-performing individuals come together, in business as in sports. Fueled by human ingenuity and relying on impartial enforcement of rules as a foundation, they form winning collaborations.
The result is joy and fulfillment rather than pain, creating value in all walks of life.