The games that we play ….

February 1, 2008

A blog from Tom Davenport extols the value of analytics for the Super Bowl. One quote will illustrate the tone of this: The Patriots also make extensive use of analytics for on-the-field decisions. They employ statistics, for example, to decide whether to punt or “go for it” on fourth down, whether to try for one point or two after a touchdown, and whether to throw out the yellow flag and challenge a referee’s ruling. Now this amused me, particularly as the most important sporting occasion of the year is about to start here in Europe, with the single most important match this Saturday. Tonight by the way will see me in Gloucester to watch England v Wales at under 20 level given that I have failed in my attempts to get a pair of tickets for the main event.

Now Tom is, by implication (given his other writing) making an equivalent argument for business. He has always had a strong emphasis on analytics. Now I find this interesting, as the nature of the game in play determines the success of the tactic. I was also reminded of a more general point about the games people play as children, namely that they profoundly influence us in later life as they lay down patterns during key periods of plasticity in the human brain.

Many people may not know that American Football was derived (I avoid the word evolved deliberately) from Rugby Union. Some Harvard/Yale students decided that Rugby was too rough and undisciplined so they sat down and redesigned it on rational principles (Harvard have been doing this to natural processes even since). After this there was a bit of evolution after the early days with the ability to do mass substitution. However the replacement of the scum with the scrimmage, the forward pass and the concept of “downs” were all there at the start.

Basically it ended up with a game which is eminently suitable for a analytic approach to dominate. The coach can call all the plays. the game is stop start with timeouts allowing decisions to be made other than in the heat of battle. Positions are highly specialist, something no better illustrated than in the kickers who are brought on just to kick the ball while in Rugby Union the player (generally the Fly Half) has to under take kicking duties as well. In the case of James Hook during the last Wales v South Africa match immediately after being felled by a disgraceful and dangerous short arm tackle. There are defense teams and offense teams, you swap them over. In Rugby the same team has to adjust from offense to defense as it happens and the ball is in more of less continuous play (the world record by the way is the first half of Scotland v Wales in 2005 a year in which the Welsh Forwards completed more passes that the English Backs across all matches). The intensity of decision making for a Rugby Union Fly Half exceeds that of a quarter back and the physical demands on forwards in continuous play (without body armor) are greater. Oh, and by the way in Rugby a limited number of one time only substitutions are allowed.

Now I could go on, and I admit that I am a partisan for Rugby which is not just a sport where I come from, it a religious matter bound up with national identity. However the point I want to make here is a serious one. If you spend your childhood playing a game in which the coach calls the play, you can call time outs, offense and defense can be swapped; then the models or patterns of command and decision making on your brain reflect that environment (and there is a wider contagion even to people who don’t play but spectate or cheer lead). On the other hand if you play Rugby (or even Soccer) then while analytics are important before and after the match, during the match you have to exercise adaptive leadership and decision making without the support of analytics.

I originally made this connection in the context of battlefield tactics. However I think it extends to the way management is taught and practices. In a modern world I think (sorry Tom) that the models of Rugby Union (not League as that is closer to the American game) have more relevance than those of the Gridiron.

PS: Late addition/thought on this yellow flag issue. Challenge the referee’s ruling? If you do that in Rugby you get marched back ten yards on the penalty or sin binned ….

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