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What football can teach us about foresight

 

Peyton ManningOn December 27, 2009, during a pro football game between the until-then undefeated Indianapolis Colts and the New York Jets, Colts Head Coach Jim Caldwell pulled his starters, including the veteran quarterback Peyton Manning—a football megastar, from the game. The Colts were ahead, but barely. There was a lot of game left to play. The move drove fans nuts, creating a sports-blog furor and lots of Monday morning quarterbacking.
 
It was clear to me, as I watched the game with several strong-opinioned sports fans, that there were multiple, distinct points of view about this. And everyone, to a point, was right, and perhaps everyone was also wrong. It depended on your point of view and assumptions about what was at stake.
 
Some of the points of view:
 
Fans in the stadium—Short-term view. Paid a lot of money, and suffered cold weather and snow to go see the game, some surely in the main to see the star quarterback play.
 
Fantasy football fans and bettors—Short-term view. Surely counted utterly on the Peyton Manning and his team to win, and lost money because of the loss.
 
Second-strong players—Short-term view. may have been pleased at the chance to play and develop their skills, but suffered at the humiliation of poor results and a loss, all attributable the quarter and a half in which they played.
 
Head coach Caldwell and quarterback Manning—Long-term view. Focused on the playoffs and keeping Manning healthy for the only part of the season that truly matters.
 
New York Jets players and fans—Short-term view. Sure, they got a win, but they didn’t beat the best of the Indianapolis Colts.
 
And so on.
 
What does this tell us that is at all useful to foresight? First, it highlights a complex situation of conflicting near and long-term perspectives, and varying stakeholder points of view. That, in fact, is common across society and across the questions that matter to us most. It’s also at the root of many organizational decisions. Nevertheless, the fans in this case, and stakeholders in most cases, often forget that things are not black and white, and that there are long-term and short-term ways to weigh things.
 
And too often, those of opposing views think others are either stupid, or evil in their actions. I worked hard to try (I failed) to convince some I was with that Coach Caldwell was not making a “mistake,” just taking an action they didn’t agree with, or wished he wouldn’t. It was not a blunder. He did it on purpose, with forethought, and with the knowledge of quarterback Manning and agreement of the team owner.
 
Looking at sports can help us think about big questions and can improve our foresight. Perhaps most usefully, there are regularly situations in popular sports like this, and lots of people will know about and understand the situations. You can use them to illustrate points you may need to make about different points of view in your work and decisionmaking. This is especially true of weighing near and long-term goals, and also valuable in contrasting different stakeholder perspectives. Sports are also a safer topic (usually) than some of the most pressing and distressing organizational or societal questions. You can use a good story from the sports world to highlight differences of stakeholders, differing assumptions, and the short-term versus the long-term.
 
Image: www.usmc.mil
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