Belichick -Argue well

Supported by Greenhaven Road Capital, finding value off the beaten path.

It’s Super Bowl week and what better way to celebrate that dig into the thinking behind one of the coaches (and general manager) at the game? The posts this week come from this short book

In my readings there were five big ideas that stood out:

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

This post addresses the fourth point: argue well

To argue well is to debate but remain friends. It’s to criticize ideas and not people. It’s to stress test ideas and the humility to know that no single person is smart enough to figure out everything on their own.

Parcells and Belichick

Belichick’s relationship with Bill Parcells was testy. Though they had time and success together, it wasn’t a great relationship. David Halberstam writes, “The Bills, they were called, and those on the outside presumed they were good friends, which they were not.” Part of the reason was how Parcells communicated:

“He was volatile and wore his emotions close to the surface. He found that it worked for him, that he could use his emotions as an instrument of coaching. He had a sharp, sardonic wit and a very considerable skill with words; he could taunt a player, sometimes with cruel humor, and in the one-way coach-to-player relationship, the player dared not answer back. Even his very best players and his assistant coaches feared his tongue. He knew the game and had a very good feel for the game and for the mood of his team, but he was never an Xs and Os man, like his junior partner.”

Belichick chose a different path writes Halberstam. “What did fit his personality was the sum of his knowledge, being the best-prepared coach on the field. Players would do what he asked not because he was their pal, but because he could help them win and they came to believe in his abilities.” How do you be the best prepared to win? By being the best informed. That means arguing well in pursuit of the truth.

Writer Michael Holley spent years with Belichick’s Patriots teams and noted, “Belichick has no problem listening to any counter argument – provided that it can be supported with some type of evidence.” In fact, said Scott Pioli, arguing well is a necessity of working with Belichick. “It’s so important that part of the evaluation of you is going to be whether or not you have an opinion.”

Why argue well? Here’s Belichick:

“That way you don’t have those crude masturbation activities. Sometimes somebody can get going and then everyone follows that line of thinking, that process. And then everybody agrees. It’s better when we just analyze independently and all agree or work it out ourselves.”

It’s more valuable to come up with your own ideas and then defend them. That’s what it means to argue well.

Engineers, then and now

Good arguments sharpen the point. They remove the extraneous. Gene Wilder saw this during a meeting with Mel Brooks about Young Frankenstein. Wilder wanted something in the script, Brooks didn’t. They argued back and forth, Wilder recalls he got upset.

“Well, my temperature rose, and after 20 minutes or so of arguing, my color went from red to, I think, blue or purple. I started screaming and then all of a sudden, he said, OK, it’s in. And I said, well, why did you put me through this? And he said, I wasn’t sure if it was right. And I thought if you didn’t argue for it, then it was wrong. And if you did, it was right. So you convinced me.”

That’s what good arguments do. They figure out if someone believes in an idea. They trim the fat. They sculpt the rock. Engineers do this well.

When Andy Grove’s company, Intel, was facing major pressure on its memory chip business. Grove thought they had to pivot to something else. The question was, what? Grove writes that they figured it out by “ferociously arguing with one another while remaining friends.” Intel had to do this as fast as possible.

Grove wrote, “The most important tool in identifying a particular development as a strategic inflection point is a broad and intensive debate.” It’s powerful that Grove, the top person, suggested this. Arguing well requires top-down support. Grove understood that he didn’t know everything. In his book, he acknowledges that his understanding was formed by the past, which by definition, is how things used to be. He knew that things changed and he had to figure out if the idea born in the past could survive in the present.

Another engineer who believed in good arguments was Wilbur Wright.  “(Wilbur) was always ready to oppose an idea expressed by anybody…ready to jump into an argument with both sleeves rolled up,” said family friend George Spratt. He had to be, the Wright brothers, like Belichick, Grove, and Wilder and Brooks were doing something groundbreaking. They were trying to fly.

“A good scrap,” thought Wilbur, “brought out new ways of looking at things…helped round the corners.”

Walt Disney too believed in arguing well, “We voice our opinions and sometimes have good old fashioned scraps, but in the end, things get ironed out and we have something we’re all proud of.”

If you look at what each of these people attempted you see a pattern – each is breaking ground on a new area and needs input from others to figure out how to do it well.

  • Disney was creating the field of animated movies.
  • The Wright brothers were creating the field of aviation.
  • Grove was creating Intel’s microprocessor business.
  • Brooks and Wilder were creating a new kind of movie.
  • Belichick was creating a new kind of football team.

If you are trying to do something that’s never been done, good arguments are part of that.

Tomorrow we’ll end our series on Belichick and look at counterfactuals.

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