What is a “Playbook”?

Business strategy businessman holding a blackboard planning team strategy on a chalk drawing of a soccer playing field

Last week we discussed the need for a “New Business Playbook.” But what exactly is a “playbook”? And why do we need a new one?

Think of a playbook like a detailed reference guide stored and accessed in your unconscious brain. When you get new information, become confused, run into trouble, or try to achieve a goal, you turn to your playbook to tell you what to do. Actual playbooks are common in sports, where coaches will document their plans for a game. When a new situation presents itself, the coach turns to the playbook to figure out what to do. Down by 7 points in the fourth quarter, starting on the opposing team’s 20 yard line? Turn to the playbook and pick the plays that will win the game.

We all have playbooks, even though we typically don’t realize it. Your brain couldn’t possibly process megabytes of information, weigh options, and tell you what to do if it didn’t have a set of rules (also known as “heuristics”) to reference. We literally couldn’t even feed ourselves without a playbook.

Your brain has to keep a lot of playbooks running at once. Just reading this article requires playbooks to help you with option evaluation, proprioception, memory access, and executive function. Since your conscious mind (i.e., the part of you which thinks of you as “you”) can only pay attention to one thing at a time, all those playbooks have to run in the background, beyond the reach of your self-awareness. You brain is designed to keep all these playbooks running so you can focus on other things.

Again, you wouldn’t be able to survive if you couldn’t do that. But there are downsides to this elegant arrangement. And ignorance is probably the biggest. Playbooks are critical, but you likely have no idea you are using them. And you can’t purposefully change something of which you aren’t aware. This is dangerous in a world that is changing rapidly.

When you start a business, make decisions about what to produce, design organizations, hire people, and sell to customers, you are running a business playbook. Your business playbook is hidden within your unconscious brain, working away, making decisions that directly affect your business and your key stakeholders. And it isn’t even your playbook. It’s a relic that was handed down to you piece by piece, experience by experience, mistake by mistake, developing into a full-fledged business manual without you even realizing what was happening.

This first line of this playbook was written around the time that mass production, urbanization, and mechanization all started to significantly change the world of commerce. That was over 150 years ago. A few things have changed since that time, including an integrated global information system, analytical automation, liquidity and fluidity of capital, and the expectations and beliefs of the people who make your business dreams a reality. All this has changed. But your business playbook has largely stayed the same.

The gap between the world we live in and the business playbook our unconscious selves are using to build, lead, and manage our business is large, and growing fast. This is leading to business problems that increasingly seem unsolvable. This is what our old business playbook has delivered:

Strategic Initiatives Fail to Achieve Promised Results
80% of mergers underperform expectations
78% of innovation projects don’t deliver
70% of change initiatives achieve suboptimal results

People Are Not Fully Productive
85% of employees believe management hurts performance
70% of workforce self-report as not fully productive
81% of leaders consistently fail to meet or exceed their objective

Leaders Are Struggling to Solve These Problems
46% of senior hires fail in first 18 months
82% of managers are failing at basic responsibilities
78% of CEOs report their teams are likely working on the wrong things

This data is aggregated from sources such as Harvard, McKinsey, Gallup, and Harris. It is remarkably consistent over the last 20 years. Leaders and managers are responding to an increasingly chaotic and volatile operating environment using a playbook designed for a game that is no longer being played. We are taking action based on a playbook that consistently produces terrible results. It isn’t surprising that we are stuck about why this is happening or what to do: we don’t realize that we’re running a playbook, so we don’t know what needs to change to produce better results. When you have this blind spot, the only reasonable choice is to believe that your problems are beyond your control (they aren’t), or that your problems are really caused by other people (they aren’t).

Here, in a nutshell, is how you lead and manage:

  • You have a business playbook… whether you know it or not.
  • You reference your playbook hundreds of times a day. It tells you how to set goals, solve problems, and win the game.
  • Your playbook has been handed down to you, or built by accident. You didn’t create it.
  • Your playbook rarely gets improved. You don’t know it is there, so you can’t change it.
  • The playbook you use is designed to win in a world that hasn’t existed for a long time. In fact, the core of your playbook was written between 100 and 150 years ago.
  • Playbooks that aren’t designed to confront today’s business realities create bad results. Bad playbooks create bad businesses.
  • You can replace your old, broken playbook with a new playbook. A playbook based on the reality of today, not yesterday.
  • Talentism’s goal is to create, teach, and implement that new playbook.

Next up: The elements of a business playbook.

Leave a Reply