Organizational Culture Inspiration from the N.F.L.

Full disclosure—I don’t watch football (don’t @ me), but as a strategist, I enjoy thinking about the cultural dynamics that impact organizations on their way to achieving their goals, whether they be Super Bowl titles or increased shareholder value.  

That helps explain why, late last year, I found myself still sitting in my car in my own driveway, engrossed with a Freakonomics Radio episode that went deep into the experience of N.F.L. players as employees.

The episode (When is a Superstar Just Another Employee?) was such a refreshing take on organizational culture and leadership compared to the more standard HBR-style case studies. I played it back a few times, with a pen and pad in hand, determined to connect what us mere mortals in corporate jobs can learn from the workplaces of elite athletes and their support staff. 

Three lessons bubbled to the top that can improve organizational culture (in any office).


1. Seek out feedback from employees. Take action on what you learn. 

The episode centers on the results of the N.F.L. Players Association’s first-ever employee survey, and the implications it had on culture and performance. While employee surveys are likely not new in your organization, how often are follow-ups done to understand the why behind the results? And, how often is timely action taken? 

Sometimes fixes in response to employee feedback are easy:

Fix the locker room showers! 

Make sure our team has up to date technology. 

Other times, the solutions are more complex and their at-scale implications unknown: 

How might we reimagine the family support benefits we offer employees, especially during essential work travel? 

In these situations, embrace experimentation. Many of our projects with clients don’t end with a PowerPoint deck, but with pilot plans that prioritize action instead of trying to perfect an idea that might not even deliver. To do this, we implement employee-led solutions for a deliberate test-and-learn period to understand their results. Experimentation enables any organization to more formally adopt the solutions that improve experience and performance while avoiding those that don’t. 

In fact, some of my favorite experimentation case studies over the years involve ideas that our clients chose not to pursue after only a few weeks of experimentation. Without this time to pressure-test their assumptions, they would have continued on an unsuccessful path for months, maybe even years, rather than make an early pivot towards ideas that were more promising. 

2. Cascade the organization vision and strategy to all employees. Make it personal.

There is a great story in the episode of one of the highest scoring coaches in the player survey, Mike McDaniel of the Miami Dolphins. In it, he takes time to sit with a wide receiver to explain that while the player’s designated role is to catch passes that score touchdowns, the player is also needed to block on other plays in order to successfully implement their holistic game strategy. For newly drafted players, this understanding of the bigger picture over a “just do what I say” approach, leads to a stronger team culture both on and off the field. 

Personal 1:1s explaining the complete strategy is the same tactic that successful teams in non-sporting organizations should follow. In most companies, having the most senior leader do 1:1s is unrealistic, but tapping department and team leaders to facilitate the cascade is not only more feasible, it can actually lead to better results as these are the people the team has a direct and trusted relationship with. 

For example, on a recent project with Pfizer, we worked closely with the leader of the digital customer experience team to define their vision, charter, and operating mindsets. As the first step in our 3-month rollout, we tapped the functional leaders to lead smaller team-based Activation Workshops that contextualized the new strategy. 

This personalized touchpoint with the team allowed for honest conversation and unpacking the strategy so that by the end of the two-week cascade across teams, all employees understood not just what the new direction was, but why it mattered to the success of the team, and how they could individually contribute to making it happen. 

Two weeks. 80 people. Full alignment. 

3. Consider optimizing performance at a team level vs. individual level. 

In the office world we focus a lot on optimizing team productivity, or someone’s individual performance, but we aren’t so good at evaluating and optimizing performance at a team level.

In the N.F.L. coaches need to make sure they don’t have players who are “the ultimate deodorant”, like a star quarterback, whose contributions can mask underlying performance or cultural issues on the field or in the locker room. Yeah, the squad may deliver short term results, but sustainable performance truly is a team effort, not an individual one. 

How might this work in the office? In addition to evaluating and improving the team as a whole, teams can be mixed up more regularly to break out of default roles and allow other folks to take on more responsibility—or new responsibilities. Without this intentionality, efficiency becomes the default metric which doesn’t always equate to highest performance or best results. 

Just think, what happens if the star quarterback gets hurt? Is the backup prepared? Is the foundation of the team culture strong enough to handle the adversity?

One strategy we employ is to lean into deliberate cross-functional team staffing for strategic initiatives. For example, on a recent strategy and design sprint project with a consumer electronics company, we assembled nine team members from across various disciplines to work on developing products and services for expansion markets. 

These team members didn’t work together on a daily basis, but their nomination to the project allowed them to bring their domain expertise to an environment where they were all equals. A shared understanding combined with new vantage points made this almost a super collective. 

A top draft pick—or recruited new hire—might boost short-term results, but a multi-disciplined roster should be the goal for any performance oriented team looking to post wins long-term. 

If you listen to the episode, I’d love to hear how it’s inspiring new questions or ideas for your work. I’ll be bringing more posts like this into the TDG blog mix, so drop me a comment or email me podcasts or articles that are adjacent to corporate life, but might offer insights we can all learn from. 🤓

Erin Lamberty
[email protected]

Erin Lamberty is a Director at The Design Gym, a strategy and innovation consultancy helping leaders to grow their business by fully unlocking the power of their most important advantage: their people. We work at the intersection of business strategy, experience design, and change management to engage the people that matter most to your work: your customers, your leaders, and your employees. See something that resonates with a project or challenge you're working on? Shoot us a note at [email protected].

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