If there’s one thing leaders can count on, it’s that you can’t count on things to stay the same. You get a game plan and then all of a sudden, circumstances change—your plan will no longer work. That’s when you’ve got to do what my friend, retired Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula, refers to as “calling an audible”—doing something different to succeed.
One of my favorite stories about calling audibles comes from a seeing eye dog training program in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Two kinds of dogs would get kicked out of this program. One was the completely disobedient dog—the one that would do nothing the master wanted. Surprisingly, the other kind was the completely obedient dog—the one that did whatever the master asked it to.
The program only kept dogs that did whatever the master wanted unless it didn’t make sense. The trainers actually taught these dogs to think—to use judgment! So, if a dog is on a street corner and the master says, “Forward”—but the dog looks and sees a car coming at 60 miles an hour—the dog doesn’t blindly think, “This is a real bummer” as he leads his master right out in front of the car. Ha!
Sometimes leaders need to be like the seeing eye dog staring at the car heading their way at 60 miles per hour. Just because the business plan says to follow Plan A, it might be time to adopt Plan B.
Netflix provides a great example. In 1998—back when Blockbuster was the big name in movie rentals—Netflix started renting out DVDs by mail. But by 2007 the DVD rental model was losing profitability. That’s when Netflix called an audible—they took advantage of new technology and began offering a subscription streaming service.
Netflix is now the global leader in on-demand entertainment. Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy in 2010. Blockbuster either didn’t see the car coming at 60 miles an hour, or they blindly followed a bad plan.
Organizations thrive when decision makers at every level learn to be audible ready. For example, a family with young kids was having dinner at a fine gourmet hotel restaurant in New York City. The kids ordered macaroni and cheese from the children’s menu. When dinner came, the kids played with the macaroni but didn’t each much. The grown-ups tried some and thought it was the greatest gourmet mac-and-cheese they’d ever tasted. When the waiter asked the kids if there was something wrong with their meal, they said, “It’s yucky! It’s not Kraft!”
The next evening when the family appeared at the restaurant, the waiter from the previous night spotted them and came right over to the kids. “I was hoping you would come back. I got Kraft for you.” With that, he went to the kitchen and returned with a box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.
With an audible-ready waiter like that, is it any wonder the restaurant was flourishing?
Many organizations today have an organizational chart with everyone in a comfortable box. It might look nice on the wall, but it locks everyone into a fixed game plan and often, fixed rules. Don’t let this happen to you. Plans and procedures are important, so have them in place. But be ready to call an audible when you see that 60-mile-an-hour car heading your way!