The phrase “Hail Mary” to describe a desperate long pass down the field entered the NFL lexicon after a Dallas Cowboys vs Minnesota Vikings playoff game in 1975 when Cowboys’ quarterback Roger Staubach connected with receiver Drew Pearson in what turned out to be the game-winning play.
Despite the glamour of the Steve Sabol narrated NFL films, few games are won with last second heroics. In fact, most NFL games are won with solid defense and relentless offense. In order to score, you have to “move the chains” (make first downs). Put more simply, games are won when you score more points and gain more yards than the other team, and that’s only done when you make first downs and “move the chains.” “Move the chains” is football lingo for playing for the next first down, advancing down the field purposefully and continuously until you cross the goal. It’s a way of thinking about the game that’s directly transferable to organizational change because it speaks to continuous disciplined progress rather than just sprinting for the finish and hoping for a miracle.
When a team marches steadily down the field each time they have the ball, they demonstrate discipline and gain confidence. That discipline and confidence is what wins ball games, and it’s the same discipline and confidence needed to make organizational change successful. Like football, moving an organization through change seldom comes from “Hail Mary” plays. Interim goals and steady progress are the keys to success. Just like moving ten yards to the next first down sets up the offense for the next ten yards, so do interim goals plot the way toward the ultimate goal. Furthermore, in NFL the head coach has to have a game plan and then train the players to execute it consistently. So it is with organizational change: the leader has to have a plan and a disciplined team with the ability to execute it. No plan or an undisciplined team is a recipe for disaster. Furthermore, a leader who can’t communicate the vision and the plan to get there is headed for a fall no matter how good is his team.
Organizational change, especially revolutionary change, is hard on the people in the organization if all leaders are doing is flinging the ball down the field and hoping for a miracle. Even Peter Drucker thought so. People will very quickly surmise the leader doesn’t have a way ahead, which will in turn manifest itself in workplace discord, a drop in productivity, and eventually a hemorrhage of talent. For the visionary leader, it’s very tempting to want to move an organization quickly: “revolutionary change” versus “evolutionary change,” but organizations and people are rarely that nimble without a lot of practice. In the NFL coaches will sometimes rely on trick plays, all out defensive blitzes, and long passes when they’re out of ideas. Those coaches don’t usually last very long. People can become disillusioned with their leaders quickly when faced with too many “Hail Mary’s” and not enough “first downs.” This is not to say teams can’t “do” revolutionary change…but like the ’75 Cowboys people can’t make the big plays unless they can make the small ones.
On the other hand, if leaders are focused on the next first down while continuing to point the way down the field…that is the interim goals pointed at the final goal…then the team will continue to work together to get into the end zone. Revolutionary change is possible so long as leaders prepare their teams with solid leadership and clear cut interim goals, and most importantly, a clear destination everyone can buy into. Achieving interim goals on the way to the end zone gives the team confidence. Repeated and consistent “first downs” reinforce discipline in the team, discipline the team will need to score again and again.
The confidence gained by high performance then directly contributes to a team agile enough to make those “Hail Mary’s” when they have to take the long shot. They will develop confidence in themselves and their leaders.
They will become a championship team.