Attack, Recover, Attack

Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Volume 10, Issue No. 12
March, 2012

By Dan Coughlin

I define a dynamic sport as one where an individual or team can go from offense to defense to offense without any stoppage of play. Examples of dynamic sports are basketball, hockey, soccer, volleyball, tennis, ping-pong, racquetball, and even football if you consider fumbles and interceptions.

Terry Michler, the subject of my book, Find a Way to Win, is the all-time winningest high school soccer coach in U.S. history. His CBC High School soccer team has won more than 800 games during his forty years as the head coach. He taught me about the importance of the moment of transition in a soccer game. The team that can more effectively shift from offense to defense and from defense to offense will likely win the game. The same is true in business.

When a team loses the ball in a soccer match, the absolute priority is to prevent the other team from scoring and then to win the ball back. Immediately every player who was on offense must switch gears and take up a defensive posture. One player must step in front of the ball to slow the other team down and everyone else needs to move quickly in order to support the effort to keep the other team from scoring. When a team loses the ball and hesitates for even three seconds before moving into defensive positions, the other team can quickly advance down the field and set up a scoring opportunity.

When a team wins the ball, it needs every player to quickly adjust into an offensive mindset and work with the other players to attack the other team. Hesitating causes the team to miss out on opportunities that may cost it a victory.

Business is a Dynamic Sport

Business is an activity that is in constant flux. Employees go home at some point, but the organization can be affected positively or negatively at any point in time. A fire in the building, a computer breakdown, an important customer collapsing, a competitor failing to deliver a critical commitment to one of its customers, or a market crash on a different continent can all have major ramifications for your business. At any moment, your business may need to shift from playing offense to defense or from defense to offense.

Choose Your Path Carefully and Quickly

The objective in business is to maintain positive momentum, where the members of the organization are taking advantage of opportunities to generate sustainable, profitable growth.

This is playing offense. It’s where you are in attack mode. However, when the momentum has been reversed for some reason, it’s important for you and your team to respond effectively as quickly as you can.

When faced with dramatically bad news, people have two options. They can cringe in fear that they will never be able to recover, or they can ask themselves what they need to do in this new reality in order to regain positive momentum. In his book, Bounce: The Art of Turning Tough Times into Triumph, Keith McFarland provides an interesting fictional story that has very real applications for all business leaders about this critical transitional moment. He talks about the importance of moving from “Anxiety 1: the fear of change” to “Anxiety 2: the fear of what will happen if you don’t change.” In other words, the key to a successful recovery is to quickly realize you need to change something in order to succeed in the new situation.

Just as in a soccer game, you can’t put your head down and complain just because you’ve temporarily lost positive momentum. You need to respond as fast as possible. Here are some questions to consider:

  1. What has truly changed in our business and/or in the environment we compete in?
  2. What will we continue to do the same as before?
  3. What will we need to change immediately in order to regain positive momentum?

In his book, Great by Choice, Jim Collins explained a technique he calls, “zoom out/zoom in.” Zoom out to understand the current situation as it currently exists. Once you understand what has changed, then zoom in to decide exactly what you are going to do and when you are going to do it.

We Live in Volatile Times, But We Don’t Have to Respond in a Volatile Manner

300-point swings in the Dow Jones used to be a rarity, but now are fairly commonplace. Watching any cable news stations shows the speed with which a major story can be replaced by another massive calamity. With 24-hour coverage of weather events and politics, and world-wide instant reports of military battles and citizen uprisings, we all are familiar with how quickly things can change. And we all know we have to courageously make changes to succeed in the short term.

Or do we?

Knee-jerk reactions to changes or just as dangerous as no response. In soccer, you don’t want to recover the ball and then kick it back to the other team right away. The idea is regain positive momentum as quickly as you can and then maintain that momentum. It does no good to respond to a negative trend in the marketplace by firing 90% of your employees or selling off every valuable asset you have built up over the years just so you can say you had a profitable quarter. How will you sustain those profits without employees and without assets you can leverage for your customers? Keep in mind how you will deal with success when you have recaptured positive momentum. Are you setting yourself up in a way that will allow you to maintain that positive momentum or are you putting yourself in a position to lose it again quickly?

Maintain Calmness in the Midst of Chaos

A well-trained team does not panic when they lose the ball. They also don’t become frustrated. They simply do what needs to be done. They get back on defense, win the ball, and return to attacking the other team. Terry Michler wrote, “Bringing order out of chaos is dependent on having a well-rehearsed action plan. Recognizing what is happening and responding to it appropriately, usually in a prioritized way, with a definite objective is the best way to control the moment. Transition in soccer is dependent on immediate action, supported by all the players reacting in similar manner with the same intent.”

Before a negative event unexpectedly reverses the momentum in your business, train your employees on how to respond effectively. Set aside time each quarter to discuss three or four events that could happen and how your group or organization will respond to those changes. In other words, practice dealing with negative changes in momentum.

If you lost your three largest customers overnight, what would you do tomorrow morning?

If your company produced a large number of faulty products and garnered massive negative media attention, what would you do immediately?

If one of your most valuable senior executives was caught abusing an employee, what would you do right away?

Rather than waiting to be put on the defensive, think through how you would actually respond to such a situation.

When the actual negative event occurs, it may not be one of the possibilities that you discussed. However, by discussing a variety of possible negative events and how to effectively handle them, your group or organization will be much better prepared for any negative event.

The Objective is to Attack

It is important to be very efficient and effective when you need to move your business into a defensive position. You need to be able to survive those significant impacts on your business. However, you also need to be able to see an opportunity when it presents itself. This requires being on the alert for even the early stages of an opportunity that you could pursue to shift the momentum of your business.

In a dynamic sport, it is not enough just to be good at recovering the ball when the other team has it. You also have to be able to attack right away and maintain the positive momentum. In other words, don’t just give the ball away the first time the other team goes to get it back. You want to maintain possession until you get a shot on goal.

Even when you are in a defensive position, ask yourself these questions:

How can we use our strengths and passions as an organization to add real value to a current customer or a desired customer?

Specifically, what will we do to win an opportunity to serve a customer right now that fits within the type of value we want to be known for delivering?

What are one small opportunity and one big opportunity we can go after right now?

Stay on the Alert

Playing a dynamic sport requires the players to always be on the alert. They have to know when to shift from offense to defense and defense to offense. They need to be trained to see these shifts in momentum and how to respond effectively.

Business is a quickly-changing game. Know your purpose as an organization, know the values you are going to stick to during good times and bad times, and know the value you want to be known for delivering into the marketplace. With those things in mind, be alert as to when you need to attack and go after opportunities, when you need to focus your attention on responding to a negative shift in momentum, and when you need to go back on the attack. The way you and the other members of your organization respond to those transitional moments will largely determine your success over the long term.

Republishing Articles

My newsletters, Thoughts on Excellence, have been republished in approximately 40 trade magazines, on-line publications, and internal publications for businesses, universities, and not-for-profit organizations over the past 20+ years. If you would like to republish all or part of my monthly articles, please send me an e-mail at with the name of the article you want in the subject heading. I will send you the article in a word document.

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