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Who Says It's Luck?

by Pat Townsend
and Joan Gebhardt

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When an individual or an organization sets out to improve through learning, the most common approach is to "learn from mistakes." They look at instances when they fell short of their goals or targets, and try to figure out what to change in order to raise the odds of success on the next try. Conversely (and perversely) unusual successes are treated as either lucky or specific to a particular individual or group, and thus deemed not worth studying.

But why assume that success--a notable achievement by another individual or group within the same organization or by a competitor--is based on luck? In fact, extraordinary success often teaches better lessons than extraordinary, or even routine, failure. When a person or team fails, they usually have a pretty good idea of what they didn't do. When someone soars above the crowd, there usually are surprise lessons in store.

Years ago, the Virginia Tech University football team head coach, Frank Beamer, figured out that blocking kicks needn't be left to chance. For most football fans, seeing a blocked kick is a rare treat. It's an exciting moment that swings the momentum of a game and often determines the winner. Most football fans can recall exactly when they last saw--or ever saw--a blocked kick.

For Virginia Tech fans, blocked kicks border on routine. As of early November 1998, the Hokies had blocked 70 kicks in the 134 games since Coach Beamer took over in 1987. That's 33 punts, 19 field goals and 18 extra points blocked, or an average of a little better than one blocked kick every other game.

While the NCAA doesn't keep team statistics for blocked kicks, their resident statistician does confirm that Virginia Tech's totals are unusually high, and he can think of no other team with results anywhere near theirs.

Ask a Virginia Tech player or fan to talk about their team's success, and blocked kicks will be part of the conversation. Favorite blocked kicks such as the blocked extra point kicks that helped ensure victory over powerhouse Miami in 1997 and 1998, or the two blocked punts against Pittsburgh in 1995 after being down 10 -0 that led to victory and an invitation to the Sugar Bowl, will be described in loving detail . again and again.

Exactly how much success has the team experienced under Coach Beamer? Virginia Tech is currently one of only 10 schools in the country that have been invited to bowl games the last five years in a row. Prior to Beamer's arrival, the school had never been to back-to-back bowls. In fact, they had been involved in only six bowl games from the time of the founding of the Virginia Tech football program in 1892 until the arrival of Coach Beamer--and two of those were when he was a player at Virginia Tech himself. Winning streaks include a school-high 10 in a row in one season and 13 in a row over two seasons, as well as having the highest winning percentage in the Big East Conference. And, of late, they have been nationally ranked year after year, another new experience for the school and its alumni and fans.

What's going on?

Coach Beamer's approach has rich lessons for the corporate world. He and his staff looked at something done by their competitors--and occasionally by their own team--that has long been thought of as a "lucky" break and have made it part of their team's habitual behavior. Any organization can apply their methods:

*They specifically train for the behavior that they want, and they do so in a high-profile manner. Their practices include time to practice blocking kicks. When that time comes, all other training activity stops so that every team member can focus on the training, even if they're not a direct participant. In short, there is no doubt that the senior executive team (i.e., the coaching staff) considers this activity to be important because they're willing to invest the most precious thing they have in improving the kick-blockers' performance: their own time and attention, and the players' time and attention.

*The head coach personally coaches three of the "special teams," the designation for those various groups of football players designated to receive kicks, make kick-offs, etc. Again, the head coach's personal investment reminds players of the importance of special teams.

*Many of the best players on the team, including starters on the regular offensive and defensive teams, also are starters on the special teams. Most teams carefully avoid this because special teams are considered high risk due to the increased injury rate that is common during kicking plays. The message is straightforward: The play of the special teams is important.

*After each game, the coaching staff awards three game balls to players: one to a player from the offensive squad, one to a player from the defensive squad, and one to a player from the special teams. Again, the message is not only clear, it's also loud.


When an organization wants to improve its behavior--and, consequently, its results--in a particular area of business, it can follow the same methodology. It must first realize that what is called luck is almost always a matter of preparation and timing. Therefore, it can most often be repeated. The next steps are:

*Pick an obviously desirable achievement, even if conventional wisdom says that it can't be taught.

*Study the behavior, and identify the teachable, repeatable elements.

*In an obvious manner, invest senior managers' time and energy in teaching the desired behavior and emphasizing its importance to the organization's future.

*Assign some of the organization's best people to be the new behavior's practitioners.

*Publicly recognize the new team's achievements.

As with Coach Beamer and his coaching staff, a corporate team can significantly boost its success rate by teaching its people how to do something correctly rather than not doing things badly. The key to a successful quality effort is to concentrate on the possibilities for tomorrow.


About the authors

Pat Townsend and Joan Gebhardt have written more than 200 articles and four books: Commit to Quality (John Wiley & Sons, 1986); Quality in Action: 93 Lessons in Leadership, Participation, and Measurement (John Wiley & Sons, 1992); Five-Star Leadership: The Art and Strategy of Creating Leaders at Every Level (John Wiley & Sons, 1997); and Recognition, Gratitude & Celebration (Crisp Publications, 1997).

E-mail them at  ptownsend@qualitydigest.com.


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