It’s Super Bowl weekend, and as an avid NFL fan I plan to plant myself in front of the big-screen, to eat some unhealthy “football food”, and to watch anxiously to see how the Big Game plays out in the Big Apple. And while I will be surely tuned in, this is one of those years that I will probably be just as interested in the commercials as I am in the main event. As a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, our season ended weeks ago and the long and winding roller-coaster of a year came to a screeching and painful halt during the last game of the NFL’s regular season. The Steelers came inches away from making the playoffs, and arguably were “robbed” of a playoff berth by some bad officiating. But that is the end of the story… let’s start at the beginning.
Pittsburgh had high hopes this year, and most experts projected another successful year for the proud franchise with its league-leading 6 Super Bowl titles (after a bad season, yes, I am stuck reveling in past glories). However, those expectations changed quickly as the Steelers stumbled out of the gate with 4 consecutive losses and were plagued by injuries, turnovers, and poor execution. Over the next several weeks, they started playing better and won five out of their next seven games to get back into contention. But then after two painful last-minute losses full of drama, memorable plays, and unusual calls, the Steelers sat at five wins and eight losses and only a mathematician could have calculated a scenario in which they could still make the playoffs. Pittsburgh needed to win their final three games, and dozens of other games involving teams ahead of them in the standings had to all go their way. They had a chance, but it was remote.
But as the weeks went by, Pittsburgh took care of business on their end. They won their final three games decisively and finished the season at eight wins and eight losses. More remarkably, however, was that every other scenario that they needed started falling into place. In the end, on that last Sunday afternoon of the NFL season, the Steelers needed only one game to go their way and they would have defied all odds and made it into the playoffs as the sixth and final seed. Their fate rested solely on a game on the other side of the country as they needed the Kansas City Chiefs to stomp into San Diego and defeat the Chargers. A Chiefs win and the Steelers were in… A Chiefs loss and the Steelers were done.
Even before this game started, the odds were stacked against the Steelers. San Diego had everything to lose as they needed to win this game so as to make the playoffs, and Kansas City had nothing to gain as they had already clinched a playoff berth. And with Kansas City’s fate secured, their coach chose to bench all of their stars and regular starters so as to allow them to rest prior to the playoffs. It was a smart decision, but a maddening one to Steelers Nation as it drastically hurt our chances. However, as they say, “That’s why they play the game.” Kansas City’s “B-team” jumped out to an early lead and out-played San Diego for the majority of the game. As the clock wound down, it looked as if the Chiefs had the game on cruise control and that Kansas City, and thus Pittsburgh, was going to pull off the surprising upset. But the tides turned quickly and San Diego mounted a comeback and tied the game late. Suddenly, things looked bleak yet again. But Kansas City didn’t quit and marched down the field and into field goal range and had a chance to kick a relatively short field goal to win the game as time expired. They lined up for the kick, while I stood jumping up and down in my living room watching hopefully as the ball left the kicker’s foot and… it unbelievably sailed just inches to the left of the goal posts. He missed it. Devastating. And if that wasn’t enough, replays showed that San Diego was lined up in an illegal formation and that a penalty should have been called which would have allowed Kansas City to kick again. “Ifs and buts…” No flag was thrown and the game was deadlocked as it went into overtime.
In overtime, Kansas City again seemingly won the game as they forced a fumble on a fake punt and returned it for a touchdown. However the referees questionably overturned the play and gave the ball back to San Diego, who drove down the field, scored, and ultimately won the game. It was a crazy game, and was one that Kansas City, by all accounts, deserved to have won… but the final scoreboard read San Diego 27, Kansas City 24 and the Chargers were in the playoffs and the Steelers were not.
So who’s to blame? Kansas City’s coach? Had he played their starters, they likely would have won. The “incompetent” kicker? If he makes a clutch kick, then the Steelers make the playoffs. The referees? Bad calls (which the NFL later confirmed truly to be mistakes by the refs) gave San Diego second chances and helped enable the eventual comeback. If any of these had gone in Pittsburgh’s favor, then Kansas City wins and Pittsburgh makes the playoffs. So who’s fault is it?
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said it best, “I’m not looking to assess blame on anybody else about our current position other than ourselves.” Yes, their fate had come down to Kansas City winning this one final game, and Kansas City deserved to have won… but the Steelers’ fate never should have come down to that. Their horrible start to the season, their inconsistent play on both offense and defense, and their inability to force turnovers all season long were ultimately to blame. They dug themselves into a huge hole, and needed someone else to ultimately bail them out. Yes, Kansas City had multiple chances to get them out of the hole and into the playoffs… but there is no one to blame but themselves for digging the hole in the first place.
Why am I telling this story (other than than the fact that a month later, I obviously am still mourning!)? How often in our organizations do we knowingly put ourselves or our teams into situations where we need a “miracle” at the end to deliver a superior product or to enable a deadline to be completed on time? We often are willing and encouraging to take risks at the beginning of the “game”, forcing ourselves and our teams to dig themselves out of holes and to rally to save the day in the closing moments. Often the intent is all positive and is rooted in a strong belief in amazing people to deliver amazing results. And if you are lucky like me, then you are surrounded by incredibly talented and dedicated people who more often than not do successfully make the “clutch kick” at the end of the game so that the risk pays off.
But the thing about risks, is that while there often is a big reward there is equally a chance for a big consequence. This consequence may be a result of the team failing to fully execute the last second “comeback”, the result of some factor outside the control of the team “penalizing” the work, or any of a variety of circumstances that can conspire against a heroic effort. And when undesirable consequences do occur (as they sometimes will in a risk-taking environment), how does your organization handle it? Do you blame the “kicker” who failed to execute? Do you yell at the “referees” who impeded progress at the end? Or do the leaders who accepted the risk in the first place take accountability for the consequence, and reward the team for attempting the heroics?
This is not to say that organizations should routinely accept failure. Rather, it is to say that we must be intentional when taking risks at the beginning of an effort, so that we deliberately understand and accept the consequences that might occur at the end- not only for the work itself- but also for the individuals who take it on. A metaphor that I like to use is a relay race. If we choose, for example to start a project late without changing the “finish line” then there is a lot of extra speed and efficient handoffs needed to successfully complete the race. As the deadline approaches, do we put pressure on the final runner of the race to cross the finish line, when he/she may not have even yet been handed the baton? And if they do cross the line late, do we let the final runner feel the burden of that failure or do we accept it organizationally for taking the risk to start the race late in the first place? This final runner can do everything right, break the world record for speed and efficiency but still ultimately fail to “win the race” for the team… do we support this runner as he/she crosses the line or put the consequence of the “failure” on his/her shoulders?
We want big rewards in our organizations, and with the speed and demands of today’s innovation environment these rewards will require big risks. If we want to create a culture that accepts and rewards risk-taking, then we must have leadership that consistently and outwardly accepts consequences. If individuals feel that they will be supported in a risky endeavor, then they will fearlessly throw themselves headfirst into making the impossible become possible. If they fear retribution or blame, then they will more likely become recklessly cautious and refuse to put themselves in position to be the scapegoat to “miss the kick” at the end of the game. Do you want your team to be SUPER risk takers? You must lead as a SUPER consequence taker.
Enjoy the Super Bowl on Sunday. I will try to relax and enjoy the game despite the fact that my Steelers won’t be playing. And I won’t blame Kansas City’s kicker as I watch the commercials.