Business lessons from Sports – 4

Sports do not build character, they reveal it – Heywood Broun

What makes sports beautiful? What is it that compels us to watch matches, day in, day out? What is it that makes us stay awake at wee hours, tracking wins and losses of our favourite team? What is it that makes us become fans, for life?

The answer is different for each fan and for each sport. But, some things remain common.

In sports does imagination and execution co-exist. A fan’s involvement is simultaneously vicarious and visceral. The seemingly incongruous come together to play out in the arena.

In sports, there is no scope for excuses. You play better on a day, you win. You don’t, you lose.

Sports rarely offers second chances. If you don’t win the gold in one Olympics, there might never be another chance.

Sports is colour unyielding too. Between Gold, Silver and Bronze medals, never the twain shall meet.

Most importantly, Sports is where theory meets the practical. And, this offers strategic lessons for business.

A big challenge most organizations face is getting their organizational design and roles and responsibilities right. The hierarchy for a successful business is structure, strategy and people. You don’t get your structure right, the best of strategies and people will not be able to get great results.

Football fans around the world fret and fume about which player plays where. Most discussions hover around, is it too defensive/ is it too aggressive?  Football positions can provide food for thought for building an organizational design.

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Let us try and superimpose a football structure on a real organization.

The forwards form the frontline sales. The strikers.

The wingers and playmakers form the marketing team – they pass the ball to the striker to score goals. In business terms, product/ pricing/ promotion. Without these tools the striker will find it difficult to score.

The full backs, centre backs are the support functions. Finance, HR, Technology – without these functions, the business is always at a risk. Any weakness here and the companies lose more than they gain.

Their role in the organization is no different from that in football. The roles are dual – help provide necessary tools the frontline to win the game, but also ensure that if under attack, huddle together and plan actions that thwart assaults from competition.

The role played by financial and/or quality controller, revenue assurance team is often not understood. These members prevent leakage.  These functions together make the goal keeper. Any laxity here, and the cost borne by a company is far higher than what the wingers/ playmakers and the strikers can bring together.

Imbalances happen when organizations focus too much energies and incentives on one end of the spectrum. If the frontline walks away with all the glory, the defence suffers and the team loses – think Brazil in the 2014 World Cup semi finals.

If the half back and the centre backs are the celebrated lot – no goals get scored. Think Spain, Greece.

In the world of business, this is quite common. Sales obsessed organizations do well when the business environment is good. But, a whiff of change in the environment, these are the first to get impacted.

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Finance/ Controls focused organizations are at the other extreme. They never win in the market because they are too obsessed with defending.

Often not celebrated but a key member of the football team is the midfielder. When attacking this member feeds the wingers and the forwards – the sales and marketing members.

When under attack, this member is the first line of defence. In his strength or weakness lies the control of the game.

While Ronaldo, Messi and Salah are the stars, take away the midfield support of Barcelona, Real Madrid or Liverpool midfielder and these stars look ordinary.

The midfielder is the brand. The most vital but the most underrated aspect of any business. It is the brand that makes it easy to sell a company’s products and it is the brand that makes it difficult for competitors to attack your defences.

Often invisible in the daily scheme of things, how a company deals with the brand will determine how successful it can be, in the long term.

In summary, getting the structure right is often the most important aspect of an organization. A strategy superimposed on a right structure can work wonders. Successes might happen without a right structure and the right strategy but they would not be long lasting. The great football teams and the coaches have shown it for years.

Want to catch up with Murthy? You can write to him at

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