THE BLOG
04/02/2014 01:32 pm ET Updated Jun 02, 2014

The Final Four & Business: A Playbook for Success

We're more than halfway through both the men's and women's college basketball tournament and if there's one thing we've all seen and learned it's this: Sometimes, the most talented team doesn't win. Top-seeded teams get upset by lesser-ranked opponents. It's uncanny, and yet anyone who works in business understands that winning is never just about having the best product or the best team. You have to have a plan that helps you win -- and then it comes down to execution. The teams still standing in the tournaments are often those that came with the best plans, even if they didn't necessarily have the most talent.

That's why I've focused on building a playbook for my own team at Deloitte Consulting.

A playbook isn't a slide deck with a bunch of inspirational quotes. It's a detailed plan to recruit and train a team that will be ready to win. It's a system that draws on every member of our team and gives everyone roles to execute. It's a standard that guides me and our leadership team so that we make sure people are prepared and have the confidence to execute when it comes time to compete. A playbook, at its core, is everything that we need to have the best chance to win.

A great playbook is something that works for the team you have -- one team's playbook may not work for someone else. Think about John Wooden, the legendary coach of UCLA's men's basketball team. When he came to UCLA, the team struggled against bigger and taller opponents. What did Wooden do? He drew up a new playbook perfect for his squad. It focused on a high-energy, high-pressure game plan that emphasized speed over size. Sure enough, the playbook turned into wins. The wins turned into championships.

Later, as opponents adjusted, so did Wooden. When they went small, he went big. Wooden's teams eventually became known for their starting centers, two of whom are legends -- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton. But Wooden would point out that every member of his team was critical to the championships they won. Some players have a role to take a lot of shots, some are there to shut down an opposing player, and still another comes in for short bursts during a game. The coach's job is to build a playbook that gives each member of the team a role and then prepares that player for that role.

That's particularly true in our team-driven, knowledge-based economy. So many competitive situations will be settled by the quality of the team's total work. It's a manager's job to make sure everyone contributes to the team's success. A few stars are nice to have, but you have to put everyone on your team in a position to contribute and succeed. If someone is miscast, it not only hurts them - it hurts you as a leader.

A great playbook also is a work-in-progress. The boxer Mike Tyson famously said: "Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." And that's true in the business world, too. Your team may not execute as expected. Your competition may react differently than you anticipated. A new competitor may come out of nowhere and completely disrupt your market.

Bottom-line, your playbook must account for change and disruption. In a sense, the surest way to keep your playbook flexible is to always look for ways to innovate. Innovation is often treated like a buzzword in business. If you don't take it seriously, that's exactly what it is.

But if you take innovation seriously, you don't talk about it as much as live it. Innovation is how you can seize the initiative in every industry and every market. If you are ahead in a basketball game, you don't keep running the same plays because your competition will quickly learn how to defend against them - and maybe even exploit those plays for their own success. You switch things up, and keep your competition off its game. That's how innovation should work - keep rethinking the way the game is played and developing new and differentiated ways of doing business. Keep exploring new transactions and new initiatives to drive your competition crazy.

Of course, a playbook has to stand for something. It can't be dumped every time a team suffers a setback or two. In basketball as in business, the most successful teams are often those with playbooks that reflect confidence -- confidence in talent, confidence in preparation, confidence in the system. John Wooden famously worked his players through drills over and over again. He even spent hours at the beginning of each season telling his players how he wanted them to lace their shoes. Why? To avoid blisters. He put an emphasis on every detail of preparation because he believed that there is really no such thing as failure -- only failure to prepare. Great teams prepare, great teams innovate and great teams execute. And great leaders help them win.

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