Ready to win: what police, companies and the rest of us can learn from the Patriots



More than a week after becoming football legend, the Super Bowl’s last-minute interception continues to prompt second guessing: did Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll make a bad call when he ordered Russell Wilson throw the ball? Did the quarterback pass poorly?

Or are we focusing on the wrong things altogether?

First, let’s look at the now (in)famous play.

Running the ball, like many Monday-morning quarterbacks have advocated, would have resulted in a massive pileup at the line, and the receiver Wilson spotted in the end zone didn’t appear well covered.

That is until Patriots defender Malcolm Butler emerged as if out of nowhere for the game-saving and Super Bowl-winning interception.

Butler didn’t just get lucky. From a position nearly 20 yards from where he caught the ball, Butler got to the right spot, in about two seconds, at precisely the right moment. It was as if he knew in advance exactly what was going to happen and bolted there like a bullet. Where did he get such clairvoyance and what can we learn from that?

Turning near-catastrophe into triumph

Clearly, the Pats were ready. They prepped by watching countless Seahawks\’ game-videos and dissecting plays, using those insights to develop and practice the right counter-moves. With that level of analysis and preparation ahead of the game, Butler didn’t have to merely react in a high-stakes situation. He was able to preempt a touchdown when the stakes were high and convert potential catastrophe into victory.

This is not just about football. The high-speed learning techniques that helped the Pats are being used elsewhere by companies, government agencies and hospitals to not only succeed but improve and save lives as well.

I call this high-velocity learning, and my two decades of research has shown it’s this skill that separates the winners – the most effective and efficient in any field and those able to deliver way more value, way more quickly, with much lower cost and effort – from the rest of the pack.

Fixing bones and avoiding IEDs

Several examples illustrate my point. Dr John Maera leads a team at Boston’s Children’s Hospital that is renovating the face of toddler Violet Pietrok. She was born with a severe deformity: the bones in her face did not grow together properly. The problem can be corrected but requires a series of complicated procedures to work.

To make sure it has the highest chance of success and the lowest risk of complication during and after surgery, the team prints and practices on a 3D model of Violet’s bones, to work out the kinks before the stakes are high. Like with the Patriots, low-pressure practice let’s them be preemptive, not reactive, to surprises in the moment.

Another example is the US Army. On the battlefield, soldiers must make split-second decisions constantly, with no margin for error. The Center for Army Lessons Learned repeatedly rehearses various scenarios in simulations and drills based on actual experiences so that mistakes can be remedied and aren’t made in the field.

Meanwhile, Alcoa drove its workplace injury rate to a mere fraction of the norm by making all close calls the trigger for examination and improvement of technological processes and people’s behaviors. In doing so, the aluminum maker avoided countless disabilities and deaths that would be “normal” elsewhere.

Improving police-public relations

Putting body cams on police officers offers a similar opportunity to catch small problems early to prevent bigger ones from flaring up.

With so much tension between police and some of the communities they serve, officials have been scrambling for solutions. Some have proposed a seemingly easy one: equip police with body cameras to record interactions with the public.

Two assumptions seem to be behind this idea. First is that simply wearing cameras will make officers more cautious. Second is that when something goes wrong, the video will give the public and officials alike tools to assign potential blame.

The problem is that both of these are based on preventing or punishing officers from doing wrong, not on preparing police (or the public for that matter) to do things right.

However, if employed like the Patriots used game film, the surgeons studied 3D bone models, or the Army learned from soldiers\’ experiences, body cams on police can solve problems before they spill out of control. Used with related processes, they can improve both police behavior and community faith in law enforcement. The most valuable use of this technology is not reactive. It is for preemptive high-speed learning.

Learning from near misses and close calls

What this means is that rather than looking at body cam videos only after something terribly wrong has happened, police supervisors could regularly review footage of day-to-day events with officers.

It would be particularly useful after close calls, near misses and lower-level slip-ups to detect vulnerabilities in approach, suggest improvements and practice in advance of the next patrol. The best use for body cameras is to inform such collective learning.

Switching from retributive to preventative use won’t “just happen,” for police or anyone else for that matter. It requires breaking through all sorts of organizational inertia, evoked by mantras such as: “don’t mess with what isn’t broken” and “we’ve always done it this way.”

It starts at the top

And it often starts at the top of the management structure. In the case of the Patriots, Head Coach Bill Belichick provided the motivating force for the team’s constant learning dynamic. Even before the Pats hit the practice field, Belichick is constantly quizzing veterans and rookies alike about which plays an opponent might run in what circumstances and what the Patriots should do in each situation.

In each of these examples, the fundamental difference between good and great is not technological; it is behavioral. And the distinctive behavior is a state of continual learning, in which problems are constantly seen and even sought, solutions are regularly tried and tested, and the dynamic never lets up.

Admittedly, this relentlessness is neither easy to initiate nor sustain. That’s why it has to be the constant obsession of senior leaders and cannot be a responsibility that is delegated away. The rewards are worth it though, be it measured by Lombardi Trophies, perfect care, outstanding products that win exceptional market share or perfect patrols.

Author Bio: Steven Spear is a Senior Lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management