Lessons for Organizations from Soccer: The myth of the magic bumper sticker, and execution matters.

“I think the task [of improving the success of the US men’s national soccer team] is a lot more complicated than people want to give it credit for. People want to believe it’s simple. It’s been a failing at U.S. Soccer that we’ve always had this attitude that if we just discover the one thing that we’re not doing, we’ll be fine. It’s not one thing, it’s a number of things particularly in the way we do things, that we have to change. And it’s going to be hard.”
– Kevin Payne, CEO U.S. Club Soccer, Vice Chair US Soccer Foundation, former president of DC United and former CEO of Toronto FC, and a founder of Major League Soccer, Soccer America, 10/23/17

Over the years I have been in a lot of conversations about messaging. A lot of organizations that are not getting the public attention they think they deserve or that are not attracting the funding they need think the problem is the lack of a magic bumper sticker. They believe that with the right tagline, the right elevator pitch, or the right logo, the New York Times and deep-pocketed supporters will come rushing. One need look no further than the hand-wringing among Democrats about the lack of a message being the reason Clinton lost and Republicans aren’t casting off their cloaks of ignorance and rushing into the light of the Democratic National Committee. But what Kevin Payne says about soccer in America is true for the world outside of soccer as well: It’s not just one thing and the challenge is often in how the work itself gets done. Let’s take those in order.

It’s not one thing, it’s a number of things. The hope for the One Thing that will Fix Everything can be compelling. Our stories are full of magic keys and swords, and we swim in a sea of viral hashtags and advertising jingles. If only we had one of those, it is tempting to think, all would be right. We tell ourselves that the problem isn’t that we aren’t clear on our mission or audience, or that no one wants what we’re selling; the problem is that we just aren’t saying it right! We believe that our kingdom will be lost for the want of a verb. It’s true, a catchy phrase can catch on (as I type this I have “bump-padump-ba-bump we are Farmer’s” in my head) — and that catchiness can help. But more often than not there is more going on. Several years ago I was brought into an organization that felt it needed to raise its national profile to increase its funding and respect; they wanted to be in the national conversation as an end and also as a means to bring more money in the door. Over the course of two years I attended countless meetings on messaging, with senior staff weighing in on phrases and clauses and punctuation. Other experts were consulted and informal internal and external focus groups were convened. And we never got the magic phrase, we never got the One Thing. Part of the problem was that the organization didn’t agree internally about what it did — it couldn’t explain itself the outside world because it couldn’t explain itself to itself. Not everyone agreed on who needed to hear more about the organization and why. Not everyone even agreed on what the point of the organization was. The One Thing, messaging, was an attempt to use a magic bumper sticker to fix a car that thought it might a train or a plum tree. More often than not the urge for the perfect phrase, the one thing, distracts from the real work of addressing the more complex series of problems an organization faces.

Second, it’s about the hard work of getting things done. The best ideas don’t matter if you can’t execute them. Execution means doing the boring, diligent, dogged work of doing the work. Getting the work done can be a grind and rarely offers immediate reward. It is also how success happens. A well organized and hardworking group with a pretty good plan and pretty good skills will beat a group of stars with a great plan but who are organized and lazy every day of the week. One need look no further than the US men’s national soccer team for evidence of that — the teenager on the US team that lost to Trinidad and Tobago a few weeks ago probably makes more in a year than the entire T&T team combined. And the US got its clock cleaned. T&T worked hard and stuck to its plan. The US collection of international stars got outworked and as a result are out of the World Cup. Your brilliant strategic plan will fail if you don’t have the discipline to implement it, just like your expensive gym membership won’t give you killer abs if you don’t use the facilities regularly. It is better to doggedly stick to a pretty good plan than ignore a brilliant one, and better to regularly do planks and squats in the basement than it is to pay for a gym you don’t go to. Your magic bumper sticker will lose to the other person’s hard work every time.

Kevin’s right about soccer in the US, and he’s probably right about your organization as well.

For more lessons for managers and organizations from soccer look for Soccer Thinking for Management Success due out next summer.

Follow me on Medium @PeterLoge

 

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