Bill Belichick (invert, always invert)

My complete thoughts on Belichick are available on Amazon. This post is part one of five. 

  1. Inversion
  2. Pattern recognition
  3. Top-down support
  4. Argue well
  5. Seek counterfactuals

New England Patriots at Washington Redskins 08/28/09Drawing on inspiration from David Halberstam’s The Education of a Coach we’ll look at how Bill Belichick prepares by red teaming, specifically the act of inversion. 

Red teaming is the creation, support, and application of a friendly perspective on what you’re doing wrong. This is clear in football. It’s the scout team. Those players will adopt the mindset, strategy, and tactics of an opposing team so other players on the team can practice and improve against their specific skills.

Belichick didn’t set out to adopt a red team set of tools. He didn’t articulate this kind of system. He grew into because of forces beyond his control. It started without intention. It started when he coached the offense.

Inversion

Sometimes the best way to solve a problem is to not solve the problem. Ask, ‘what solutions won’t work?’ and by process of elimination you’ll hone in on the direction you need to go. Answering the opposite question will also expose your own ideas to parts you may not have considered before.

The two quarterbacks

It was around 1973 and Belichick got a job coaching the tight ends for the Detroit Lions. This was not what Belichick expected, explains Halberstam:

“Though Belichick’s instinct was to coach defense – it was where he was pulled as if by some kind of magnetic force – he was also beginning to understand that if you were going to coach defense, you had to master the offense as well, otherwise you were only half a coach.”

This was a valuable lesson writes Halberstam, because “the more he knew about the offensive side and the way the people on the offensive side thought, the better prepared he would be coaching defense.”

Belichick’s first red teaming skill was inversion.  He started to understand both sides. He started thinking forward and backward. He started to understand the why.

This time coaching the offense had a big impact on him. Five years later with the New York Giants, he would run laps after practice with his partner in crime, Ernie Adams and the two would talk about football. “And he would tell Adams,” Halberstam writes, “that he did not understand how some of the other coaches in the League had decided they were only going to understand one side of the ball….it absolutely amazed him.”

In knowing both sides, Belichick created a more accurate picture of the conditions. He saw things as they were, not as he wanted or thought them to be. As a coach he would use this ability to see both sides to make his greatest mistake and greatest success.

First, the mistake. If you’re a big football fan you’ve heard of him. His name is Bernie Kosar. As a kid in Ohio at the time I remember the reverence for Kosar. Halberstam put it this way:

“For almost a decade Kosar had been the signature sports figure in a sports-crazed city, a much-loved figure in a community that badly needed any success in sports to compensate for a profound economic and social decline; the city was becoming something of a national joke.”

Kosar’s reputation wasn’t unearned. He had led the team to the conference finals in 1986, 1987, and 1989. The problem was that Kosar was old. Rod Woodson, cornerback of the archrival Steelers said, “He’s not mobile at all. Now when you look at them on your schedule, you’re putting a W down before you play.”

Belichick released  Kosar. It did not go well. Soon after, team owner Art Modell moved the Browns to Baltimore and Belichick lost his job.

Belichick red teamed Kosar, looked at him as if an opposing coach would and realized he could not longer play at an elite level. He knew this from both the offensive and defensive perspective. As a coach at the Giants he devised game plans against Kosar. As a coach of the Browns he planned game plans for Kosar.

While the correct football decision (and good inversion) Belichick became a pariah in Cleveland. He received death threats. An effigy of him was hung outside the stadium on a crude set of gallows. This  happened because he failed to explain his thinking well enough.

Part of good inversion is to think like an outsider, but only to a point. Belichick told Halberstam that he and Kosar just met at an unlucky time. He knew what to do (stop playing Kosar) but not how to do it (release him with dignity). Good red teaming requires this balance. 

In his book, Red Team, Micah Zenko writes, “The red team’s engagement should not be done in a “gotcha” manner to embarrass or humiliate an office or individual.”

 


Belichick’s greatest decision was eerily similar to his time on Lake Erie, but the conditions with the New England Patriots were just different enough.

Drew Bledsoe, like Kosar, was a good quarterback. He held many individual records and made four Pro Bowl teams. Belichick thought, like he had for Kosar, that Bledsoe was too old. He had to make a change.

Why had he thought this? Why was Belichick one of the few people in a league full of experienced coaches, scouts, and player personnel managers to notice this?

There’s an anecdote about boiling frogs that helps explain this. The story goes that if you put a frog in boiling water it will notice the danger and immediately jump out. However, if you put a frog in tepid water and slowly increase the heat, the frog fails to notice the change and eventually is boiled alive.

A more relevant and easy to see example is the waistline.

The story about frogs is false, but it buoys something we intuitively know – small changes are hard to notice but add up to large changes. When a quarterback, to use football terms, “loses a step,” how can you tell? The great plays are still there. The heroics, the highlights, the hail-mary passes all look the same.

Belichick knew because he inverted the question. He put on a defensive headset and thought about how he could plan to stop the aging Kosar/Bledsoe. Then he put on the offensive headset and thought about how he could have them succeed. Looking at this from both sides he saw the strengths and weaknesses.

Inverting Coca-Cola

Coca-Cola is the greatest company in the world – ever. Started in 1886 as a patent medicine, reformulated to include Cocoa and Kola, praised for being a pick-me-up then regulated for too much pick-up. Coca-Cola invented the red Santa Claus, brought up the rear of troops in World War 2, and helped President Reagan convince Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.”

How has one company been able to do all this?

Part of the Coca-Cola success is thanks to successful inversion.

Inversion is a switch from asking “how can I succeed?” and doing that, to, “how can I fail?” and avoiding that.

Investor Charlie Munger knows a lot about this Coca-Cola technique. In the book Damn Right, Munger explained why Coca-Cola was a good investment and he points out that Coca-Cola defended their name aggressively. “The first thing you don’t do is avoid losing half the brand name.” 

If anyone else wanted to have a cola name it was “tough luck.” Coca-Cola succeeded with this course for a long time.

Former CEO of Coca-Cola  Neville Isdell took the application of inversion one step further. When Isdell was leading teams at Coca-Cola, he had trouble getting them to think outside the box, to think about the defense when they were on offense. He inspired inverted thinking by thinking like the enemy, Pepsi.

At one meeting people entered and were handed Pepsi t-shirts and hats to put on. On the walls hung Pepsi posters and Pepsi-Cola was served. “It takes about an hour for people to get comfortable,” Isdell wrote, “but eventually things fall into place and workers get a thoroughly honest assessment of their flaws and strengths.”

In dressing up like this and role playing what Pepsi would want to do they figured out what Coca-Cola should avoid or stress.

Bill Belichick inverted game plans to look at them from both sides of the ball. Coca-Cola management inverted the protection of their brand. Patrick O’Shaughnessy suggests studying short sellers to figure out good long positions. Casey Neistat suggests figuring out how not to be big on YouTube and avoiding that.

My book inverted the question for successful technology start-ups.  Bill Simmons used inversion when he asked, what can the opponent do that scares me the most? Michael Mauboussin says to look at how easy something is to lose to figure out how much skill is involved.

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