Looking for a Technology Vendor? Don’t Hire a Football Coach

A great football coach is many things: Organized. Driven. Cool under pressure. Willing and able to help each team member reach his full potential, on and off the gridiron.

The qualities that make a coach a winner often are useful in other lines of work, too – that’s why so many coaches write business leadership books.

But, as smart and effective as so many football coaches are, they would make poor technology partners.

Admittedly, this hypothetical situation is outlandish – it’s unlikely Bill Belichick will be looking for work in the tech sector after he’s done with the Patriots — but in case any of your prospective tech vendors have football coaching in their resume, here’s what to look for – and avoid.

Start with Bill Walsh, the legendary coach of the 1980s San Francisco 49ers. Walsh was an innovator, to be sure, credited with developing the West Coast Offense and molding Joe Montana into a Hall of Fame quarterback.

The cerebral coach opened every game with 25 scripted plays – plays the team would run in order, no matter what. It worked in football, in part because it saved coaches from having to make hard decisions in the heat of the moment, when emotion could creep in. But in the development world, Walsh’s approach could be disastrous.

As noted in our recent blog post about Jeff Bezos and the Washington Post, the best technology and development teams react to changes along the way, altering goals and tactics as necessary. Developers learn a lot about a project as it progresses, and using that knowledge to adjust plans is a must. You can’t stick to a script – missing 25 opportunities to get the product right would be costly.

Football coaches also are known for their less-than-open approach to communication. Think about Belichick’s chilly postgame news conferences. Even when dealing with their players, coaches often earn a reputation for being guarded, gruff, humorless or all of the above.

Perhaps the best recent example of a coach challenged by communication is Arizona State Coach Todd Graham, who left the University of Pittsburgh to take over the Sun Devils’ program in 2011. How did Graham tell his players that he was leaving? He had the Pittsburgh public relations staff relay the news to each of them – by text message.

One of Axiaware’s fundamental principles is working together, and it hinges on tenets of healthy communication practices such as being open, being curious, listening actively and asking for help. And we know from long experience that tough conversations are more effective in person, not via the phone, email or SMS.

Finally, many great football coaches have built impressive resumes by playing it safe. In football, punting the ball in a tough situation is a no-brainer. Elsewhere, the verb “to punt” – taken right from football – has a much more negative connotation.

Woody Hayes, who neared mythical status as Ohio State’s coach from 1951 to 1978, famously disdained pass plays. Why? “Only three things can happen when you pass,” he said, “and two of them are bad.”

Hayes’s risk-averse approach worked in mid-century college football, as he won national titles in 1954, 1957, 1961, 1968 and 1970. In 21st century technology, however, the opposite approach works best – try many ideas and don’t be afraid to fail.  No one can win today without putting the ball in the air repeatedly.

As Bob Galen of iContact wrote in a recent blog post about agile development, worrying about failure prevents companies from trying new things. So go ahead and fail.

“And when I say fail in this sense, I’m implying that we fail small, we fail early, we make quick adjustments and try again and most importantly,” Galen wrote. “We fail forward!”

Just as the best team owners know what they’re looking for in a great coach, look for the qualities of a great tech partner: flexibility, open communication, a willingness to fail and make quick adjustments.  Your partner may not be a great football coach, but technology is a very different game.

Brad Powell

Brad Powell

Brad Powell is President and CEO of Axiaware, a custom software and user experience design firm that helps credit unions bridge the gap between a business goal and a software ... Web: www.axiaware.com Details