What Business Can Learn from the New England Patriots

By Dr. Michael Hammer February 2002
The New England Patriots pulled off one of the greatest upsets in Super Bowl history by defeating the heavily favored St. Louis Rams 20-17. The Patriots accomplished this after going undefeated in the final eight weeks of the regular season, edging out the Oakland Raiders in the conference semi-finals, and then beating the favored Pittsburgh Steelers to win the AFC Championship. Yet even the most die-hard Patriots fans acknowledge that their team is far from the most talented in the league; moreover, the team was without the services of its star quarterback, wide receiver, and linebacker for virtually the entire season. How did they manage to do it? Various explanations are emerging. One is that the Patriots were just lucky, “destiny’s team,” that their overconfident adversaries defeated themselves through turnovers and dumb mistakes. Another is a feel-good tale of a gritty, blue-collar team of hard-working underdogs who subverted their egos to beat superior opponents. A third is that of a “genius” coach who outmaneuvered his less sophisticated counterparts. While there are elements of truth to all of these, none is sufficient. Any team can be lucky once in a while, but not week after week and not in the NFL playoffs. Grit and determination will not stop speedy receivers or blitzing linebackers, and coaches are on the sidelines while the game is being played. The Patriots story is in fact richer than any of these; moreover, it offers important lessons for any organization trying to achieve high performance. Innovative processes are key to success. Execution is absolutely necessary, but it is not sufficient, particularly when your opponents have more talent than you do. Instead, you have to play a different game from what they are. The Patriots do not use the same football plays as everyone else. They employ a lot of “gimmick” plays on offense, and a wide range of unconventional configurations on defense. Opponents have trouble recognizing what they are facing and find their own plays disrupted, as Patriot players keep showing up where nobody expects them to be. When this happens, touchdowns and interceptions are not accidents but inevitabilities. The counterpart in business to football plays is processes, the ways in which a company performs its work. If you develop products, fill orders, create demand, and serve customers in much the same way as your competitors, it is hard to see how you will defeat them. Instead, you need to be as creative in your processes as you are in your products and your marketing. Find new ways of commercializing new technologies, of managing customer relationships, of planning production. Progressive Insurance zoomed from nowhere to being the 4th largest auto insurer in the country by constant operational innovation, inventing new ways of underwriting, handling claims, and quoting rates. Great football plays are not designed in the huddle; they are the result of meticulous work by offensive and defensive coordinators. Similarly, new ways of working don’t happen by accident and they are not invented on the fly by people in the trenches. You need to put real effort and resources into creating great processes and making sure that your people know and follow them. Match your people to your processes. Question: who is the better quarterback, the veteran starter Drew Bledsoe or his backup Tom Brady (who stepped in when Bledsoe was injured)? Answer: the question is meaningless. Bledsoe undoubtedly has a stronger arm than Brady, but it is unlikely that the Patriots would have done as well this year had he been at the helm. The Patriots’ system was not well-matched to Bledsoe’s style of quarterbacking, which is centered on staying in the pocket to hit receivers on deep routes. Other teams may have better individual players, but the talents that the Patriots did have fit just right with the kinds of plays they were expected to carry

Culture counts — a lot. relentless communication with everyone in the organization. “My job is to instill passion in these guys.” All managers should take his words to heart. repetitive. smothering coverage on defense. by embodying these values yourself. selflessness. Other computer companies may have had more brilliant individuals. On other teams. what counts is how well people can perform in context. but the Patriots have shown what happens when managers put their energies into doing so. The world’s technically “best” engineer will perform less well than a somewhat less talented peer. Individual talent is an abstraction. They aren’t easy to put in place. and by endless. they insisted on being introduced as a team rather than as individuals. Or a receiver may think it beneath him to take the field when the other side is trying to kick a field goal.and they scored a key touchdown against the Steelers when their leading receiver was there to scoop up a blocked field goal attempt. Innovative processes. It hurts me. but IBM had superior processes and people with the right talents and styles to execute these processes. But the Patriots actually believe in the values of teamwork. The Patriots’ coaches only hire players who fit this culture and they let go veterans who do not. and every individual contributing however possible . the football equivalent of a corporate value statement enshrined on plastic laminated wallet cards that urges everyone to put customers first. In any organization. and other tasks for which the peer is better suited. saying. All rights reserved. a lineman or a special teams player may resent the attention (and paychecks) lavished on quarterbacks and receivers . evaluating costs. The result was decades of market dominance. unless they are imbued with passion — and it is leadership’s role to create that passion. IBM demonstrated this in their heyday of the 1960s and 1970s. When the Patriots took the field at the Super Bowl. This nod to teamwork was not unctuous political correctness. but by rewarding people who exhibit what you are looking for (and punishing those who do not). You do this not through wallet cards. The same applies to the business environment.out: short slants on offense. . capable people. a culture of passion: the ingredients of success are not a mystery. even the most capable people working in the best-designed processes will not deliver results unless they really want to. Somewhere along the way. if the process in which he or she is working requires interacting with customers. Copyright © Hammer and Company 2002. In 1997. I have failed.and as a result not push himself to make or take a punishing block. Mike Ditka resigned as head coach of the New Orleans Saints.