Imagine that you are Sean McVay, head coach of the Los Angeles Rams, and you are at your desk planning out your week. It’s the week before the Super Bowl, meaning that 168 hours stand between now and the biggest moment of your professional career. What do you do during that time to prepare your team as well as possible?
I have spent years working with teams in the National Football League to understand how they prepare their players. I am fascinated by how people learn, and how learning science can be used to improve team performance. What I have found is this: The teams that learn the fastest, win. In my opinion, faster learning and better adaptation to change is a large part of why the Rams won the Super Bowl.
A Passion for Learning
My interest in learning didn’t start with sports – it started in a classroom, as an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I was fascinated by ways to improve higher education. I conducted research on how to redesign large lecture classes to use active learning techniques, and I found that across the board, active learning dramatically improved student learning outcomes compared to traditional lecture methods.
Once the results of the studies were published – joining hundreds of other studies that showed the efficacy of active learning, by scholars such as Stanford’s Carl Wieman – I assumed this kind of research would revolutionize education. I thought educators would follow the science, and that soon enough all passive lecture classes would be replaced with high-structure active learning classes. However, despite the overwhelming favorable evidence, few people seemed to even notice.
That is, until I got a phone call from UNC football’s head coach at the time, Larry Fedora. He told me he had heard about these active learning techniques, and he wanted me to come apply them to the football field.
Why would a football coach take note when most of the faculty had not?
The dynamics that a coach faces are different from faculty. The quality of a coach’s teaching is very publicly tested, each week, during nationally televised games. If the players make too many mistakes, the coach is held responsible, and he may get fired. So coaches do everything they can to teach their players effectively, and they seek out innovative ideas that help them stay ahead of their opponents.
There are two insights I want you to gain from that story. The first is that context influences one’s willingness to innovate. Different contexts and incentives explain why the coach called, but no one from the faculty did.
The second and related idea is that because of their unique incentives, football programs are some of the most innovative organizations in the world. There’s a lot we can learn from their methods for driving consistent, elite performance in their teams and staying ahead of their fierce competition.
Ideas from sports have already revolutionized the technology industry. The “Agile” way of working is rooted in sports. Though we tend to think about Agile in terms of software development, consider all the sports terminology involved, giving us words such as sprint, huddle, and scrum. What I found in analyzing the work of elite sports teams is that they use Agile principles to develop their people. That’s what Coach McVay did in his final weeks before the Super Bowl: He ran an Agile sprint for player development.
Creating a Playbook
I believe the best way for us to reimagine readiness in the U.S. Department of Defense is to apply Agile principles to how we develop our people. I have worked closely with football teams ever since Coach Fedora invited me to help UNC apply the learning sciences to how they train their players. Three simple principles will enable us to make this shift.
The first principle is to identify the knowledge that drives performance. Economists describe knowledge in two big categories: general knowledge, which is common across organizations and fields, and firm-specific knowledge, which is unique to a certain organization. In competitive environments, firm-specific knowledge makes the biggest difference between success and failure.
In the NFL, general knowledge includes the fundamental techniques of the game. Firm-specific knowledge includes things like each team’s playbook, game plans, and proprietary scouting reports, which are distinct from every other team’s. For anyone to make it into the NFL, they need the general knowledge, but once they are in the league and on a team, the firm-specific stuff separates the winners from the losers.
The same holds true for most organizations. As Josh Bersin and other industry analysts have noted, firm-specific knowledge drives organizational performance. However, most organizations outside of sports teams have never formalized their firm-specific knowledge into a “playbook” in the way NFL teams do. Instead, much training is informal, knowledge transfer is haphazard, and firms rely on networks of institutional knowledge. All of this is fleeting and unreliable. So the first step for any organization looking to improve is to identify their organization’s unique knowledge that drives performance, and to formalize it into a playbook.
Once you have that playbook identified, you have to answer another question: Where should the team focus? Everything is important, but you cannot cover it all at once. If you try to prioritize everything, you don’t prioritize anything, and you will fall behind a more focused competitor. The second principle is to focus on the one, highest priority first.
How do you decide what is most important? Here again, we can learn from football teams. NFL teams decide where to focus by analyzing past game film. They scrutinize every play in the game and decide where their teams must urgently improve. Those insights drive their practice plans for the next week.
If we apply this same approach in our organizations, what might we learn? What “game film” exists for your team? What does it tell you about what most urgently needs to be improved?
Once you create a playbook and prioritize based on game film, the final principle is to work in loops as fast as possible. People think about learning as a linear process, but it’s not: It is a loop. The Agile learning loop has three steps. You start by reviewing performance from objective data. Then you must identify the most critical gaps and prioritize. Finally, you must practice with your team. Once a gap is filled, you must move on to the next one.
The Rams made Agile learning loops every single day in their last week before the Super Bowl. Through these tight learning loops, they made fast updates to their highest-priority topics and perfected the techniques through focused practice.
When these principles come together, a remarkable new capability for your organization is created. By applying these principles, we can begin preparing our teams for the future fight with the urgency and effectiveness of a team preparing for the Super Bowl.
Andrew Powell is the co-founder and CEO of Learn to Win , a learning technology company serving pro sports teams, the US Department of Defense, and Fortune 500 companies. Andrew holds an MBA from Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, where he helped launch a new course called Technology, Innovation and Modern Warfare, as well as a BA from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he was a Morehead-Cain Scholar and the student body president.