This last weekend of the NFL regular season – and even the entire season – revealed a lot about systems and the teams of people you put together to be successful.  If anything, companies can learn a great deal about the importance of entire teams and not just individuals to bring about success and growth.  In some ways, it showed that if you rely too much on an individual their loss of productivity can hurt everyone and on the flip side, that if you have a strong system in place with talented people, you won’t miss a beat when an individual stumbles or leaves. Shooting from the hip might help once in a while, but proper planning and systems set your company up for a long time to come.

A lot of buzz has been made in the past year about Steve Jobs and whether Apple can move on without him.  We also see a lot of importance placed on CEOs and senior management when they succeed or fail and what effect it will have on the business.   I won’t be so naive to suggest that leadership is not important, but I will use a couple of storylines from the last weekend and the full season of the NFL to point out how a well established environment and system can allow both individuals and the entire organization to flourish.  I’ll also delve into how incredible talent can mask the wounds that are festering.

The first side of this is the feel good story of Matt Flynn – a seventh round draft pick making only his second start on Sunday – who had a record-breaking day of 480 yards passing and 6 touchdowns for the Green Bay Packers.  It’s hard not to cheer for the guy, but even he recognized that a lot of his success was due to the system.  The team is coasting into the postseason and might have been fine with average play from their back-up quarterback (so that superstar QB Aaron Rodgers can get some rest and get healthy) so it was brilliant that got such amazing play instead.  The system helped them to not miss a beat.  Green Bay Head Coach Mike McCarthy could get much of the credit, but there’s a lot of front office people who have a part in that credit – not to mention the other players on offense surrounding Flynn.

The Packers run a system that allows personnel to clearly know their part in the machine and excel.  A few other teams like the Patriots and Steelers have the same storied types of systems that allow them to compete year in and year out.  But, when players from those systems – especially quarterbacks – go on the free market (like Matt Flynn will be doing this offseason) too much credence is placed on the individual and not on the team.  One player of recent memory to benefit from a stint in a strong systems is Matt Cassel.  Cassel filled in for the injured Tom Brady and performed really well.  He was subsequently picked up by the Kansas City Chiefs as their franchise QB and he has been average since.  The Chiefs are again ending the season with a losing record – though Cassel has been injured for many of those.  Three years with the Chiefs and Chiefs management are now talking about bringing in more staff that are familiar with the Patriots system. Sort of shows the value of a good system, huh?

On the other side of the coin is a player like Peyton Manning.  The Indianapolis Colt’s abysmal season with Manning on the sideline throughout proves how phenomenal a talent he is and how management depended too much on him.  With talent like Manning’s, it was easy to make everyone around him look good.  Even when he wasn’t on the field, the defense was in better position because they felt that Manning could get them out of any hole.  Over the years, Manning broke a lot of opposing fan’s hearts with late-game magic.  Having received neck surgery prior to the season and sitting it out, the team dabbled with the possibility of going winless.  They did win two games and the fact the team didn’t implode is a testament to the players and the coaching staff, but it was clear that Manning was able to hide (or at least enable you  to forget) the team’s faults for too long.  If they had a system, it seems that it was to rely on a superstar quarterback and hope that the defense can hold on in enough games to get deep into the post-season. This season proved that it’s not a good system – if it is truly one at all.

Upon the ending of the season, The Colts have fired the progenitor of the existing system – General Manager, Bill Polian – with reporting:

» By removing Bill Polian as vice chairman, the Colts really are embarking in an entirely new direction in terms of how they procure talent and build a roster. Under Polian, the Colts favored quickness over size, having young players on defense and putting their salary-cap resources into offensive skill players. That likely will all change with a new GM, who will have to come in with a comprehensive organizational plan that includes finding players who fit the team’s new philosophy. It also will take some time to turn over the roster.

Neither of these situations are as clear as they are made out to be, but they do provide a strong argument for management setting up clear and logical systems that enable teams to excel whether made up of  passable or phenomenal talent.

You absolutely need to bring on the best talent possible, but setting up the best system for all employees to flourish might be the best work senior management might achieve.  With a strong system or foundation in place, the strong talent can go above and beyond rather than spending too much time and energy on bringing their realm into a level they are comfortable with.  Without a system, that level or realm might not work well with the other components of the business, causing further breakdowns. 

With a strong system, there is no guesswork and there is a clear illustration of how things fit together.  It allows the proactive “players” to see how what they do affects others and allows them to take positive steps while also allowing for them to be managed in productive ways.  Of course, the best systems are the ones that can conform somewhat to new strategies and initiatives or even available talent.  In the least, it provides a clearer understanding of what type of talent you really need to run well.

In the end, this post could go on forever about the benefits of strong systems, but I’m not looking to create a record-breaking post – just one that can help you win the proverbial foot race to the goal.