The Evolution of Excellence

Do you recall being warned to “look before you leap” as a child? When? What were you supposed to be looking for? It was usually when considering a daring exploit. We were being encouraged to look in order to protect ourselves. The advice is offered with hope that we have the sense to evaluate the risk versus reward trade off. We’re really being encouraged to look in order to learn. To learn to evaluate whether there’s a risk. To then consider of the risk is worth taking. What is the benefit of taking that leap?

NFL legendary coach, Bill Belichick, of the New England Patriots is known for his relentless attention to detail. His disciplined approach is complimented by his willingness to search for and try new ideas. Even as a young assistant coach he sought to apply a two headed approach to his contributions. He worked hard to learn his craft and be of minimal disruption. He realized he had an obligation to fit in to the existing processes of the profession. He had a job to do and would do it. He would learn his approach by looking at and listening to others who were already established. As he got his legs underneath him, he looked around to see what other jobs he could take on that may distinguish himself from other coaches. He saw that a task others didn’t like was reviewing game film. In the early years of Belichick’s coaching career, film analysis was a cumbersome and time consuming headache. Coach Bill took the leap and determined how to get better at this task. He became proficient at analyzing film and he became more valuable as a result. He was rewarded with more responsibility in his duties and slowly moved up the ranks. Adopting his attitude of continuous improvement catapulted him, in time, to the top becoming Head Coach.

As Head Coach, Belichick has continued his commitment to developing his team and himself. He is a stickler for the basics. No player, regardless of what kind of superstar their agent, their fans, or themselves may think they are, is able to escape the effort demanded during practices. However, concurrent with refining skills, Coach Belichick works to craft unique approaches to game situations which will give his team an advantage. Each game starts with a coin toss at midfield. The referee leads this toss with contributions from captains of both participating teams. A captain of the home team is able to call the coin toss. The winner of the coin toss gets to choose whether they want to receive the ball on the opening kick off or defer. To defer means they will receive the kick off to start the second half of the game. The loser of the coin toss decides which side of the field they will be playing from to start the game. A standard practice for years with respect to these coin tosses was that if the home team won the toss they would select to receive the ball. The logic was to get their offence on the field and engage their fans early.

Even a small detail like the coin toss was something to which Coach Belichick paid attention. At some point, he leaped and decided to part with common practice. He instructed his captain to defer whenever they won the coin toss. The direction was the same whether at home or on the road. Belichick had noticed that home teams struggled on opening drives in front of their fans. The fans were already riled up, excited, and making plenty of noise. The home team advantage in football really lies in the fans ability to disrupt the offense of the opposing team. The noise of the crowd assists the home team’s defense more than the offense. Belichick wanted to get his defense on the field and disrupt the other team’s offense at home. That was a piece of his thinking. He then worked to make the last minutes of each half very important for his teams. He consciously coached to compete for the last possession of each half. He knew that coupling two possessions back to back could result in major momentum shifts in games. If his team could both possess and score at the end of the first half and start of the second half, his teams would do well. They executed this game plan weekly for years. No one noticed Belichick’s tactics for a long time. Even as some, like TV broadcasters, noticed, they commented like it was a funny thing. It wasn’t considered a serious tactic. At some point, the winning record of the New England Patriots spoke for themselves. They led the AFC for over a decade. They’ve been to eight Superbowls winning six. They are considered the best team ever. Somewhere along the way other teams got wind of this tactic and started to copy. Now this is the default decision for any team that wins a coin toss at the start of a game. What was once an ignored sideshow to the game is now a focused decision done the same by all. A stat offered during last weekend’s 2021 Superbowl suggested that the last 11 coin toss winners at the Superbowl ALL elected to defer receipt of kick off to the second half.

Coach Belichick exemplifies the evolution of excellence presented in a predictable pattern of four stages: look, learn, leap, and lead. Whenever we’re entering an existing field we should look around at the way things are being done. We should be seeking to take advantage of the efforts that have been exerted by others in the field. Look in order to learn. There’s little value in trying to figure things out entirely from scratch on our own. We accelerate our advancement where we’re learning from what others have done by looking. Once our capabilities grow into competence or even expertise in our field we can then look to separate ourselves from the pack by trying something new. Testing technology, techniques, or tactics become an effort to leap away from the current performance level. If the efforts to separate succeed, then one establishes themselves as the new leader in the field. Look, learn, leap, lead. It’s a repeatable process that’s been used successfully for generations in all fields.

image

 

The first two stages, looking and learning, are where we’re working to integrate into an existing domain. We’re trying to establish ourselves and learn where we fit. Here, we’re integrating by conforming. We’re looking and learning what is already known. The second two stages, leaping and leading, involve differentiation where we’re working to break away from existing paradigms. Now, we want to outperform. In order to get ahead, we need to leap and explore a new direction in some way. Former NBA Coach, Kevin Eastman, writes, in Why the Best Are the Best, “Championship-caliber athletes understand that it is their mind, their skill, and their body that will determine their success. Most young athletes only think of the skill set. To be the best requires going beyond skills. As you climb the ladder, you find that everyone has mastered skills or they would not be where they are. Now you have to find ways to separate yourself from others” A distinguishing factor between good and great in any field is that the good are focused on integrating. They’re trying to survive and thrive in the current context. They are competing based on current knowledge and the same skills as others. The great realize that there are other dimensions outside of just skills that need to be developed. The greats look up and outside the existing frames of reference and take risks leaping, lifting their field to new heights.

Progress in many domains follows a similar pattern. Sports offer a steady stream of examples of excellence evolving. Pick any sport and follow the quality of equipment used over the past 50 years and you’ll see a marked improvement in the quality consistent with the look, learn, leap, and lead cycle.

Swimsuits offer a great example of how both athletes and equipment manufacturers pursue the look, learn, leap, lead evolution of excellence cycle. Swimming doesn’t have a lot of equipment. It’s about as bare bones as it comes. People in the water with minimalist swim suits. It’s been that way since the beginning of the sport. As things evolved, athletes moved to shaving their heads, using swim caps, and shaving their bodies all with the express goal of reducing drag under water. Outside of equipment, talent was evidenced by expert technique. Occasionally, a breakthrough in tactics or technique may be identified which gives a team or athlete a small window of opportunity until the technique or tactic could be seen, understood, and copied by others.

Leading swimsuit manufacturer, Speedo, helped some in the sport leap forward in 1992 with a change in materials used in competitive suits. Speedo identified an advancement in how certain nylon fabrics were processed and applied this to swimsuits resulting in 15% reduced water resistance relative to what was available in the marketplace at that time. Those that jumped on Speedo’s new suits leaped to the lead. 53% of medalists in the Olympic games of 1992 in Barcelona, Spain wore these suits. For the company, this kind of performance led to sales boosts and was good. For the athletes at the front of the line adopting the new technology, their advantage was short lived. It was clear that the suit made a difference and this was a change that was easy for others to copy. This led to a new level playing field though with faster performances by all athletes. Seven years later in 1999, Speedo devised another enhancement to their competitive swimsuits. This was the first full body swim suit for both men and women. They used a larger suit with changes to construction in order to mimic the natural skins of other excellent swimmers. The design engineers at Speedo realized that small scales in shark skins led to reduced drag. They created a way to produce this effect with construction of the full body suits. These slight equipment modifications again allowed those that leaped to adopt to lead. This round of changes led those using these suits to 83% of the medals at the Sydney Summer Olympic Games in 2000.

The arms race of escalating efficiencies in swim suits raged on. The suit was further enhanced by using very tight construction that helped hold the posture of the athlete aerodynamically under water. The suits evolved to include an almost corset like construction. The swimmer is somehow kept higher in the water in a flatter position decreasing their drag. This further modified full body suit was suggested to have additional benefits of helping improve oxygen supply to muscles. These suits are work to put on, taking up to 20 minutes to stuff oneself into. Moreover, they have limited shelf life as the elasticity is lost after just a handful of uses. They remain the purview of the elite in the sport. Leaping to adopt new technology, technique, or tactics when effective can be viewed by those on the outside as cheating. In the swimsuit wars, lawsuits were filed and arguments were made that the suits constituted the equivalent of technological doping. Clamoring to differentiate is a balance between innovating and cheating. Differentiation can be like art in that its definition lies in the eye of the beholder. One person’s improvement is another person’s cheating. The point isn’t that all improvements are good or bad, the point is that improvements are sought by those trying to break free from the current paradigm in some way. Whether that leap turns into a lead or not is up to the rules of the activity.

The evolution of excellence applies in sport, arts, and business. Copy a level until good as all others, then look around for a way to break out. Perhaps, copy another activity and lurch ahead, creating a new level of performance in your arena. True success lies in building a balance between bridging the phases of integrating and differentiating. Where are you personally on your evolution of excellence? What stage do you see yourself at? How about within your business? Knowing where we are in our personal and work efforts can guide as to where our time should be spent. If we’re working to integrate ourselves, our attention should be allocated to learning established ideas. If we’re working to differentiate ourselves, we should be exploring new fields and learning outside our current area of expertise.

“If you never copy best practices, you’ll have to repeat all the mistakes yourself. If you only copy best practices, you’ll always be one step behind the leaders.” James Clear.