What you can learn from football coach Bill Walsh


As a knowledge worker, the choices facing you each day can be overwhelming. You have nearly infinite options on what to work on and in what sequence—and that flexibility can be paralyzing. As Columbia business school professor Sheena Iyengar pointed out, when confronted with too many choices (she believes that the optimal number is about seven), people shut down and default to the easiest, most familiar, course of action—which is often doing nothing. 

That's why standard work is so important for leaders. It provides guidance and guardrails for your daily activities so that you don't end up mired in "administrivia," or so overwhelmed that you end up watching cat videos. 

Bill Walsh, the football coach who led the San Francisco 49ers to three Super Bowl championships, was famous for scripting the first 20-25 plays of each game for his team. “Pre-determining” the early phases of the game provided multiple benefits—the ability to practice the exact sequence of plays before the game, and the ability to see how the opponent responds to certain formations—but I would argue that it had another advantage. It reduced the complexity of the game and the number of decisions that both Walsh and his quarterback faced. Scripting the first plays of the game is akin to what Columbia University social theorist John Elster calls “self-binding.” Like Ulysses lashing himself to the mast of his ship in order to prevent himself from succumbing to the Sirens’ song, Walsh made the advance choice to limit his (and his quarterback’s) choices, and reduced the cognitive burden they had to deal with.

Leader standard work functions the same way. It reduces the complexity of your day and the number of decisions you face. You know you have to walk the floor, have to coach a team member, have to review cost and delivery with your team, etc. 

Your work consists of much more than emails, meetings, and firefighting. The predictable pockets of stability in your day created by standard work make it easier to, in the words of Steven Covey, "keep the main thing the main thing."

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