Moving the Ball Forward

by Scott Austin March 21, 2013

Moving the Ball Forward

Almost a decade ago now, I was working on a product team.  I was on the business side.  Much of the time on that team was spent with two groups within the org at odds with one another.  The business side had one vision and set priorities and the engineering side had another vision and set of priorities.  There was a lack of alignment.  And the general manager of the team was not a competent enough leader to resolve it for the org.  So a lot of friction built up.  The two groups fought with one another.  Much time and energy was spent and wasted on internal discussions instead of moving the product and business forward for our customers.

I believed that what I and the business team were pushing for was the right direction.  But after much wasted time with no movement forward I changed my view.  Not my view of the right direction, but my view of how I should respond to the situation.

I'm a big fan of analogies, and I came up with one for this situation.  I call it 'Moving the Ball Forward.'  Here's how it goes.

Imagine yourself in the middle of football field with your team.  Half of your team wants to go in one direction towards one goal, while the other half wants to go in the other direction towards the other goal.  So the team divides into two teams.  These two teams spend time battling one another in trying to get towards their opposite goals.  But no progress gets made towards either direction.  To steal from Charlie Sheen, the team is bi-losing.

Now take that same team and put them on the same field.  But this time, they are all moving towards the same goal and not fighting against one another.  Without the internal friction, the team is able to quickly get to the goal.  The product and business move forward.  And customers benefit.

So, what I did in my situation was to stop the internal fighting.  I no longer pushed for the business team's priorities.  I embraced the direction the engineering team was heading.  As we worked together, we actually achieved goals.

Since then, I've had the same situation repeat itself many times.  Move the ball forward has become one of the tools in my team management toolbox.  It is not the only tool.  There are times when one direction is completely wrong and should be avoided.  For example, a plan that wants to spend $100 per person on customer acquisition when the CLV is $50.  There are different tools for that situation.  But Move the ball forward has its place.  In reality, most internal frictions aren't because the goals are in opposite directions.  Usually, the goals are in generally the same direction.  The differences aren't big.  That's a situation where Move the ball forward is the right tool.  When that happens, I drop my views and adopt the other view.  Is far more productive (and better for my blood pressure) to focus on executing toward a reasonable goal than fight for my goal.

Scott Austin
Scott Austin