How are IT and Performance Management Similar to Football?

November 14, 2013 Gary Cokins

As we approach the January championship games for American college and professional football, I am pondering how this sport is similar to the way a CIO’s IT department works with managers and employees who must improve an organization’s performance using analytics, big data and integrated corporate performance management methods.

My list of similarities has two categories: game-related and human behavior-related.

Game-Related Similarities

The goal: Ultimately, the objective in football is to win. For commercial companies, winning involves constantly seeking a competitive advantage. For public sector government, it is to improve service to meet citizens’ needs.

Coaches and players: Responsibilities lie at two levels. Managers are like football coaches who create winning game plans and teach players. Employees are like players who are responsible for carrying out their managers’ plans.

Playbook and signal calling: A football coach’s playbook is like the executive team’s formulated strategy. The playbook provides instructions on how to advance the ball toward the goal line – the actions and improvements to keep winning. Quarterbacks and the defensive captain give instructions for plays and player formations, similar to how managers assign tasks and priorities. An organization’s playbook is increasingly displayed in a strategy map from which a balanced scorecard is derived.

Equipment: IT provides the software, hardware and communications technology necessary for the worker to perform. IT’s assets are comparable to football player helmets and pads. Analytics software that allows analysts to solve business problems is similar to the ability of football coaches to understand a competitor’s tendencies, strengths and weaknesses.

Quarterback audibles: As with any plan, something often happens that requires adjustments. Quarterbacks shout to change the plays at the line of scrimmage. IT is discovering the need to adjust due to technology and trends like cloud, in-memory computing, tablets and mobile devices and social media. Executives react to market changes and competitor moves and may need to change strategies accordingly.

Pre-season training camp: Football training camps prepare players for competition. Many organizations begin their fiscal year with sales or strategy “kick-off” meetings for a similar purpose. Some have in-house education and training departments.

The locker room: Football teams have facilities that are much more than dressing rooms; they are also exercise and rehabilitation areas that can help players get their minds and bodies ready for the game field. Similarly, organizations create environments with offices, meeting rooms, refreshment break nooks and cafeterias. Employees need an atmosphere where they can work to their fullest potential.

Practice field: Prior to game day, football players scrimmage on well-groomed practice fields. IT ideally provides employees, especially analysts, with tools to perform what-if scenarios and test their hypotheses with control groups to gain insights and foresights to make better decisions.

Backup players: Injuries in sports require teams to have bench strength, where a backup player is fully prepared to replace the first-string player. Similarly, in organizations, managers are tasked to train understudies in case of promotions, illness or employee turnover. Succession plans are ideally in place.

Talent scouts: Professional sports teams recognize that with time, aging players will retire. Talent scouts identify new players who can fill the shoes of the veterans. In organizations, a skilled human resources department continuously seeks internal and external talent to step into open job positions.

Human Behavior-Related Similarities

Leadership, courage and vision: Head football coaches hire qualified staff, and quarterbacks and linebackers guide the players. These key personnel have vision of how to win. Similarly, executives and key managers exhibit leadership by providing examples of exceptional role model behavior and inspiration.

Conditioning and preparation: Football players are in excellent physical shape with stamina. Pre-game preparation primes players to execute skills and plays without mistakes. Similarly, organizations now advocate employee health and wellness programs and, ideally, sufficient workforce training to minimize errors in their work.

Motivation, attitude and drive: Athletes in all sports are aided by coaches who encourage them to give their best performance. Likewise, executives and managers are tasked to inspire employees and provide constructive feedback and, more formally, compensation and bonus pay-for-performance schemes to reward behavior that improves the organization.

Pride and belief in superiority: Winning sports teams and individual players are convinced they are better than their opponents. In organizations, effective managers are supportive of employees to aid them to be the best they can be for a competitive edge. They should respect employees and develop an atmosphere of dignity and honor when working for the organization.

Teamwork: With professional sports teams, you play for the name on the front of your team’s jersey and not the personal name on the back. In organizations, a few employees can be stars, but usually it is a team effort that improves organizational performance, not just an individual’s effort. There is no “I” in team; Together Everyone Achieves More (TEAM). IT cannot obstruct analysts who seek easy and flexible access to data and the ability to manipulate it. Analysts must also collaborate with IT, which has needs for data governance.

Learning from mistakes and surviving tests: Perfection does not exist in sports. Football linemen miss blocking assignments and receivers run the wrong patterns. These errors are rarely repeated in a game. Similarly, high-performing organizations that have tolerance for errors by employees can benefit by learning from mistakes.

Determination, Perseverance and Grit

I was a two-year varsity football letterman as a defense linebacker at Cornell University. I relate my experiences on the field to experiences on the job. The professional and college football championships will conclude with the number one team at the end of the season. That team will have demonstrated determination, perseverance and grit to win. It is not much different with organizations striving to improve their performance. They have no “could’ve” or “should’ve” in their vocabulary; instead, they focus on “must have.”

I will close with a quote from William Jennings Bryan, a famous U.S. lawyer, presidential candidate and orator. He said, “Destiny is no matter of chance. It is a matter of choice. It is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved.”

*Image courtesy of

Previous Blog
In Praise of Connected Scatter Plots
In Praise of Connected Scatter Plots

Who would have thought that a graphic form that a decade ago was rarely seen outside of academic publicatio...

Next Blog
A World Filled With Data Visualization
A World Filled With Data Visualization

Data Visualization is everywhere. You may not have noticed that it’s made its way out of the offices and in...


Want more BI tips, trends, and insights? Subscribe to our newsletter!

First Name
Last Name
Company Name
I consent to receive commercial electronic messages from Dundas regarding products, services, updates and other information about Dundas. You can withdraw your consent at any time.
I Agree
Thank you!
Error - something went wrong!