It’s Not about the Score

Today, we’re going to a college rowing competition. We’ll take my blimp, so we can get high enough to keep tabs on how the 2 teams are fairing in comparison to each other. From far off, we might be able to tell that there are 8 rowers per racing shell, each operating his own oar. In the stern, the coxswain steers and calls strokes. Teamwork, coordinated timing, and balance are all keys to success—not to mention the small matter of not capsizing!

When we start watching, the race is already underway. Team A is 100 yards from the finish line, and Team B is about a mile back. Not even close.

I snap a still photo, hand it to you, and ask you to bet on the winner based on what you see. No brainer, right? Team A all the way.

Maybe not.

A Closer Look

What if, instead of a still photo of where the teams are, I show you a closer-up video of howthey’re rowing?

When we watch this, we see that Team A has started rowing in circles while the team members argue with one another and ignore their coxswain. Some have even dropped their oars in order to point at their teammates and hurl accusations back and forth.

But Team B is perfectly synchronized and balanced, achieving high speed.

Now, I ask if you’d like to change your bet on the winner. Different answer?

From Boating to Business

In the business world, we too often focus on the goal and ignore the habits and behaviors that will result in long-term success. We look at where our boat is in comparison to some predetermined finish line instead of dedicating ourselves to practicing proven rowing habits.

What will it look like if we shift our thinking?

Instead of pressuring the QA managers who encouraged you to delay reopening factories in the wake of a recall, you’ll let the bottom line lie until you’ve restored quality beyond any shadow of doubt. Your CFO might have to sweat a bit in the near term, but your brand will thank you in the long run.

Instead of focusing on how much money your clients are capable of paying you, you’ll start focusing on what you can do to help them—to add value. (Incidentally, the more value you bring, the more they’ll be willing to pay you.)

Instead of chastising your upstream marketing team when they ask to extend the deadline on a big R&D recommendation, you’ll look at their process and see that they did all the right research to discover that your shiny new prodcut-development concept has absolutely no market viability. So you’ll commend them for stopping an eventual disaster before it got rolling.

The right question is not “have we reached the goal?” It’s “are we moving well and headed in the right direction?”

Measuring Success

In many organizations, managers spend much of their time harping on targets:

  • We must achieve 10% sales improvement
  • We need to cut costs by 8% this quarter
  • We have to improve productivity 4% this year

Sound familiar? Unfortunately, we’ll all answer yes. But how do you get there? By looking at numbers? Probably not.

These narrow, quantitative “must-dos” are as silly as a football coach telling his team that they have to win by a score of 27 to 13. What the football coach wants is for his team to practice the behaviors that most often lead to victory. Are we running the right pass patterns? Are we blocking well? Are the rowers keeping their strokes in sync? Are they following through?

We’ve got plenty of folks in the business world who are obsessed with quantitative goals, but this “quant” attitude is an academic corruption of the truth that we should measure where we are and how we’re progressing.

Let’s look back at the examples above and get honest about measurement:

  • Can you determine the ROI on an investment in disassociating your brand name from the word “salmonella”?
  • When you focus on delivering value instead of closing a single sale, can you accurately measure how much more the resulting long-term client relationship brings the company?
  • How would you quantify the millions of R&D dollars saved by your upstream marketing team’s insisting on a delayed decision?

Progress and outcomes can’t always be measured with a number.

In your organization, think about leading like the football coach who wants to see his team play well. Forget about the score, and watch for the behaviors that most often lead to victory:

  • Are your people engaged and motivated?
  • Are teams collaborating?
  • Is the customer’s experience positive?
  • Is customer service empowered to fix a problem outside of policy?
  • Are your managers developing their team members’ power-alley attributes?
  • Do your people gravitate to the company’s vision?
  • Are your people given the autonomy to share and grow ideas?


  • Are your people obedient?
  • Are teams jockeying for credit?
  • Is the customer’s experience one of frustration?
  • Is customer service the enforcer of policy?
  • Are your managers saving by cutting people development?
  • Do your people roll their eyes at the phony vision?
  • Are your people feeling the discouragement of micromanagement?

If you are the 1st example, you’re succeeding—no matter where you are right now versus some invented target. And if you want to look for some additional ways to measure progress, you can set benchmarks using employee surveys, internal interviews, retention numbers, and so on.

If you are the 2nd example, you may be ahead on the scoreboard today, but you’re inevitably losing. It’s just a matter of time.