Monday, February 18, 2008

One Second...

This year, as I often do, I managed to watch the last 5 minutes of the Super Bowl. The fact that it's taken this long for me to write anything about it is evidence of how important the game is to me. But there's one particular scene from this year's game that really stuck in my head. It's about the closest I ever hope to come to using a sports metaphor for organizations.

Right at the end, NY scored the winning points. Everyone (including me!) knew NY had won and the game was over. People streamed onto the field, the New England coach left (I think), and someone dumped gatorade on someone else. Let the celebration/mourning begin. Whee/Sob (depending on your preference).

But wait!

A ref decided there was really one second left on the clock! The game wasn't over! Of course, you can't do anything in 1 second. Nothing about that second could affect the outcome of the game at all - not even theoretically. Not even if NY just handed the ball over to the fastest guy in New England. But the field had to be cleared. The players had to be brought back out. And in a magnificent example of meaningless ritual and valuing Process over Results, the QB said Hike, received the ball, and the clock ran out.

*Now* the game was really over. Whew, good thing they played that last second, don't you think?

And it hit me, we do the same thing in our organizations, when we value process over results, when rules become more important than they are useful. We clear the field, bring the players back and go through the motions of "required" activities, even though nothing can change the outcome - not even theoretically. And then we congratulate ourselves on our "due diligence." Sheesh!

Of course, it's a lot easier to excuse a football team for doing something pointless...


Rocky said...

Good point on how we tend to value process over outcome. We tend to get to married to process in business. I like the analogy.

Mark said...

As much as it pains me to relive those last few minutes, I gotta agree with you on the meaningless-ness of that final second.

As you pointed out, even the Pats' coach Bill Belechick conceded the loss and left the field before the game was "over". If you follow the Patriots at all, you'll know that old Bill is not much for meaningless ritual or show - he's very results-oriented.

Still, I feel compelled to add a little asterix to your post (no, it has nothing to do with Spygate or Sterioids). I know this wasn't your message, but just in case a casual reader misunderstands: Process isn't bad.

Reliance on process solely for the sake of process, especially when it flies in the face of achieving results, yep, that's bad. But a well defined process which meets customers/users needs can be a good thing.

In the football analogy, the use of a game clock and official timekeeping is a process, and generally it is a good thing. It is a vital part of the game, and most good coaches use "clock management" as a key part of their strategy. But sheesh, play the last second? Maybe if it was a basketball game and the team that was down one point was inbounding the ball from the sideline in their offensive zone, then it might make sense. (Sorry to get off on more sports stuff.)

One of my favorite quotes is "all models are wrong, but some are useful." (statistician George Box) I offer a corollary: "all processes are flawed, some are useful." In this case, the flaw in the football clock process was that there was no mechanism to deal with the situation other than to make that final play. As a Process Improvement Consultant, I hereby offer my expert advice to the NFL (for a modest $50K fee): modify the rulebook to allow the official, with the consent of both coaches, to conclude the game at any time. I'll be waiting for my check...

The Dan Ward said...

Good point Mark - for all the arrows I sling at process, they really are essential and important. What I'm trying to combat is **PROCESS**, the grand & exalted, received from on-high, non-negotiable and inflexible antipode to common sense (and it's funny how quickly process becomes **PROCESS**).

It would be cool if the NFL would modify their rule book - but probably better if they just looked around and said "Hey, the game is over and even Dan Ward knows it... don't worry about that last second."

BTW, I love the "all models are wrong, some are useful" quote - we use that here at AFIT a lot. It definitely applies to processes, which ultimately are (supposed to be) models of cause & effect, right?

Mark said...

While it would have been cool for the the timekeeper to have just "accidentally" waited an extra second before pushing that button, I still think they should change the rule book per my recommendation - but only so I can collect my exorbitant consulting fee. :)

And wow, I love the definition of process as "a model of cause and effect".

Gabe said...

Excellent Point! I like this metaphor a lot.