Bill Belichick has won more games than almost any other coach in American professional football history. As head of the New England Patriots, he has fielded a leading team for nearly fifteen years straight.
In a sport replete with mechanisms to level the playing field – from team salary caps to draft rules that favor bad teams – his sustained success is even more impressive. Coaching an NFL team is an endeavor enmeshed in trade-offs; you can sign a better running back, but you’ll have to release a defensive end, and so on. There is no free lunch. So what can we learn from how Belichick consistently beats the system?
Much of Belichick’s record owes to his technical brilliance and inculcation of a strong team culture. But a good portion of his success owes to strategies that hold lessons for innovators outside of sports. Here are five:
1. Avoid weak links in the chain – The Patriots contain a few of football’s all-time great players, but most of the roster is never going to dream of making the Hall of Fame. Belichick does not typically sign super-stars. Rather, he seeks an all-around strong team with few obvious weak spots. A solid “B+” average team beats one with a motley collection of “A+” and “C” players. The consistency of the team provides it with options on every play, allowing it to avoid common stall points such as a weak run defense or porous offensive line. Innovators should take heed. Initiatives often highlight a project’s selling points, and boosters can ignore a handful of weaknesses that end up sinking the ship. It is best to address those weaknesses early-on through risk-reduction activities, before seeking glory in all that is wonderful about an idea.
2. Keep opponents off-balance – Relatedly, the Patriots’ offense succeeds by keeping its opponents guessing. While the team has one of the sport’s best-ever quarterbacks in Tom Brady, it is happy to opt for short and simple passing routes, or to attempt modest runs. The other team doesn’t know what’s coming, so it can’t put all its energies into defending against a single type of play. Companies can do a similar job of keeping competitors on the back-foot, never able to marshal their forces against you because they cannot confidently predict what’s coming next. Firms as diverse as Google and Medtronic are always on the attack, changing the game before rivals figure out how to vanquish their most recent moves.
3. Save some momentum – When Belichick wins the coin toss at the start of the game, he almost always elects to give the ball to the opposing team first, so that he can have it at the start of the second half. He knows that the Patriots may need a boost then. Innovation initiatives often start with a full head of steam, but as the sprint frequently turns into a slog, energies flag. Save some momentum-builders for these times, whether those are big announcements or invigorating retreats. You may well need the lift.
4. Stay flexible – Because Belichick invests in a wide range of decent players, he can run almost any kind of play and defend against almost any type of attack. Opponents vary in their strengths, and Belichick’s malleability allows him to create radically different game plans to exploit particular teams’ key vulnerabilities. The Patriots’ rivals have no such luxury. If the other team elects to double-cover a great receiver, for instance, the Patriots have the flexibility to take advantage of their opponents’ lack of manpower elsewhere on the field. Companies need to anticipate that unforeseen impediments will arise, and they should have the capacity to meet each obstacle on its own terms.
5. Experiment relentlessly – The Patriots were pilloried early this season for lackluster performances, but few critics noted the experiments being conducted. Belichick tried out multiple configurations of the offensive line, among other gambits. He also signed a range of inexpensive players, trying to find diamonds in the rough (like Tom Brady, one of the sport’s finest players, selected as the 199th pick back in the 2000 draft). Both endeavors met with success. Innovators need to accept that many of their efforts will fail, and they need to have the discipline to recognize those failures fast. They should also learn from Belichick when to experiment most – against those hapless early-season teams, not in the playoffs.
Professional football, unlike business, strives to ensure that all teams compete on an equal footing. A team that consistently excels isn’t riding on past glories or a bigger payroll; it reflects superior thinking. Bill Belichick’s approaches dominate the gridiron, but these strategies work in Corporate America or in Silicon Valley start-ups. If you struggle to think of Belichick toiling over some new venture in a garage, consider the uniform – he already wears the obligatory hoodie.
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