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Situational Intelligence: When Doing The Unexpected Helps Your Team Exceed Expectations

By News Creatives Authors , in Leadership , at October 13, 2021

On Sunday, the Cleveland Browns and Los Angeles Chargers played the season’s highest-scoring game, ending 47 – 42 in favor of the Chargers. I won’t try to take you play-by-play through the final two minutes of the game, but I will set the scene for a rousing finish and leadership lesson with my son and I discussing the game. 

With 1:42 left on the clock and the Chargers trailing by a single point, the Chargers had the ball on the Cleveland 8-yard line. Running back Austin Ekeler took the handoff and swept left, turning toward the goal for what was sure to be a touchdown. At the 2-yard line, he only needed to lower his shoulder and do what he has done so many times before and drive into the endzone. Nobody on Cleveland’s defense looks positioned to stop him. Game over.

Except the game wasn’t over. Rather than plunge into the end zone, the heads-up Ekeler fell to his knees on the 2-yard line, prompting the following exchange between my son and I.

Son: “Um, dad, what just happened? Isn’t scoring a touchdown what he’s supposed to do?” 

Me: “Not exactly, in this situation. What he did just then was genius. He didn’t want to score so early that the Browns would have time to come down and score to win at the buzzer. Remember, a team can do a lot in a minute.”

Son: “Ah…”

The Chargers were implementing a strategy of burning the clock, which meant not only that they did everything in their power to keep the clock running down to zero, but that they relied on the Browns defensive team to follow their script and do all the things teams usually did, which was to stop the other team from scoring. 

Except the Browns were also heads-up enough to have their own revision to the Chargers’ narrative. On the very next play, Ekeler was handed the ball and tried to run weakly—this time to the right—hoping to waste more time. But the Browns defenders wouldn’t let him, surrounding him and then literally lifting Ekeler off the ground and carrying him into the endzone for a touchdown that put Los Angeles ahead 47 – 42. 

Son: “Um, dad, now I’m totally confused. Why did the Browns just carry Ekeler into the endzone? Isn’t the goal of the defense to stop you from getting in?” 

Me: “Yes, but what they did there was genius. By making him score, the Browns were assured of getting the ball back with plenty of time to try and score to end the game.”

A great strategic ploy is not the same as a trick play. It’s not like a fake punt in which one team gains a temporary advantage by doing something novel or unexpected. Trickery may win you first downs and even the odd game, but it usually doesn’t win you championships. Sunday’s plays were about applying a deep understanding of all of the little details of one’s work and adjusting one’s approach to change the game.

One of the greatest game changers was Muhammad Ali. When he fought George Foreman in 1974 in the now legendary Rumble in the Jungle, Foreman was the undefeated world heavyweight champion, a magnificent physical specimen who pummeled opponents into submission. Boxer after boxer tried to go toe to toe with Foreman, and boxer after boxer went down.

So, Ali, who was neither as young or strong as Foreman, did the unexpected. After getting nowhere trying to trade punches with Foreman, in the second round Ali put into play what he famously called his “rope-a-dope” strategy, literally leaning back against the ropes and shielding himself from the sledgehammer blows of Foreman. The move made him appear weak and cowering, the antithesis of what you’d expect from a proud boxer. But Ali’s tactic was to wear down Foreman’s formidable punching power and then clean up in the later rounds. Almost on cue, Foreman began to tire, and by the eighth round, Ali summarily knocked him out in what was considered one of sport’s greatest moments.

Ironically, being present in the now is what allows us to prepare for the long-term. Presence is what makes us realize that rather than conclude a blowout year in sales with another new account, we apply the new business to the next quarter to give ourselves a strong start. It’s what prompts us to appoint somebody new to a project rather than the usual suspects so we build a deeper bench to draw on down the road.

Situational intelligence often runs counter to standard operating procedures. That’s why it works so well and that’s why it makes for some exhilarating (and educational!) Sunday television for a parent and child.

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