Who’s Your Competition?

Bo Pelini is the head football coach at Nebraska. That first hyperlink is a bio that starts with, “It is about the process.” The phrase expresses a mindset for Bo, judging by how often the public has heard that message from him. Sportscasters say he tells the players that, “They are their own barometers.” Or, “They’re their own standard.” Or not to worry about the other team; if Nebraska players execute the plays right, the game results will take care of themselves. (That last one demonstrates considerable confidence in his coaching staff, eh?! He’s a leader to them, too!)

Is your mindset non-competitive? Do you compete with peers? Or with an idea?

My experience suggests non-competitive mindsets are the least common. We commonly teach aspiring members of our workforce that we and our organizations achieve more if we and they set goals and track progress toward achievement. The PMBOK® Guide devotes one of the largest of its five “Process Groups” to “Monitoring and Controlling”. At the start of each Sprint (or Iteration) in Scrum, teams set goals for the Sprint in a Sprint Backlog. At the end of each Sprint, teams focus for a time on what went well (so we’ll be more likely to do it again) and what didn’t go well (so we’ll be more likely to try something else). Maybe goals and competition with them are intrinsic parts of the human condition.

Some problems in our organizations relate to competition. On a sports team, two players at the same position “compete” for playing time and for approval of team, coaches, and fans. There are parallels in the workplace. It’s too common that people react with jealousy, sabotage, and other attributes and acts we’d rather not see in our organizations. (Or … in ourselves!)

At the same time, some benefit to our organizations relate to goal-setting. It is one way people notice when there’s a better way to complete a process; they consider (and sometimes choose) to improve that process. It is one way people widen the breadth of their thinking and base decisions on more information. (They avoid “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic”, or what some mathematicians call “suboptimization” or “local optimization”.) Goal-setting is one way to introduce a feedback loop into our decision processes. And each point this paragraph makes about people applies also to our organizations.

Is Bo Pelini competitive? It’s just my opinion, but I’ll say the veins sticking out on his neck after something doesn’t go Nebraska’s way is powerful evidence! I’ll say … he’s competitive.

I conclude Bo Pelini is teaching Nebraska football players to compete against an idea: the “perfect” game in which each player executes every plan as assigned and adapts as intended. Because Bo establishes that emphasis, players at each playing position focus on each other as teammates rather than as competitors; they work hard to develop the skills they contribute to the team. The players learn to think simultaneously at a position level (“Who am I supposed to block this play?”) and at a team level (“This play is supposed to achieve [I don’t know–a running back running the ball through a particular gap; whatever]; if the player I’m to block is out of the play for any reason, I’ll find another way to contribute to the larger goal.”)

I suspect Bo chooses this coaching mindset in part because it helps his players focus on cooperation with teammates and skills they contribute to the team. He believes teams work better when team members cooperate.

I suspect Bo feels the team is stronger if all players focus on doing all they can to help the team win. And avoid focus on comparing themselves to teammates. He seems to want them to feel that if they focus on being the best player they can be, the playing time will take care of itself.

I see parallels for those of us serving less visible teams than Nebraska football. My examples come, of course, from software engineering projects.

  • A clear and accepted team goal (say, completing the software tool a customer needs to implement their planned new business process) is valuable in helping team members make supporting decisions and independently adapt to unexpected conditions. It encourages initiative and free thinking. (Some in the U.S. military use the terms “Command Intent” or “Commander’s Intent“.)
  • Teamwork may be achievable, but it is more difficult if a team “knows” that two teammates want a promotion (or raise, bonus, or recognition award) only one can get. Maybe those two people sabotage each other. Maybe those two people are exemplars of good behavior, but teammates suspect otherwise.

NCAA Division I athletics (and software engineering projects) are tough enough without optional obstacles! I like Bo’s coaching mindset.

Hmmm … college athletics are supposed to be education, right?! Maybe they’re working beyond the teams! Thanks, Bo!