One of the phrases often heard in management meetings is ‘run with the ball’. Sometimes this is in the sense of ‘pick up the ball and run’, or ‘continue a process that someone else has started’, which may perhaps be from rugby. There, the ball quite often ends up on the ground, but still in play, and someone needs to pick it up and carry on the move.

More often, though, the phrase is used as an alternative to the idea of passing, which probably draws on American football. There, the two main tactics available are to run the ball up the field towards the goal, or to pass it forwards. The ground gained is significantly greater from a pass—rather like a kick in rugby—so why would you ever run with the ball?

To run or to pass, that is the question

The answer lies in the situation, for both rugby and American football. In rugby, you can only pass backwards. If you do not run, therefore, the ball will go backwards. Only running or kicking can move the ball forwards. When you kick the ball, it quite often bounces unpredictably, so may end up ‘in touch’, or outside the playing zone. If so, the opposition gets to throw it back in, and you lose control. The only exception to this is a penalty kick, where you also get the throw-in. So running is the most reliable of way of moving the ball up the pitch. Kicking will get you further, potentially, but less reliably. The risk–reward trade-off is obvious.

In American football, there is a similar trade-off between running and passing. Successful passing gets the ball further, but there is also more chance of an interception or incomplete play. The distance gained is usually slightly greater but the average difference is not as much as you would expect: typically five to ten yards for a pass, and around four yards for a run. That said, there is unmistakably a trend in American football towards passing rather than running, so perhaps the risk–reward trade-off is better than these statistics suggest.

There is another issue to consider: predictability. If you always run, or always pass, the opposition will learn and will be better able to counter your move. Unpredictability is crucial in sport, which is why most teams use coded calls for plays and line-outs. You simply do not want the other team to know what you are going to do.

Lessons for digital transformation 

What, you may be thinking, does this have to do with management, apart from being an interesting dissertation on the origin of a phrase? There are two important tactical lessons to draw, especially for agile marketing departments.

Collaboration is hard, but it will get you further in the longer term – Running is, in many sports, the easier option. You just get on and do it, without having to consult anyone else. The single figure, weaving their way up the pitch in defiance of the opposition, is one of sporting legend. Unfortunately, however, that weaving run seldom ends in a goal or score, except in story books. It is far more likely to end up losing the ball and being booed by the spectators. Passing requires more work, because it requires planning and practising, and ultimately, a reliance on your team-mates to be where they are needed. It is the same in management. Doing it yourself is the easy option, but seldom ends in long-term glory. Collaboration and teamwork are much harder, but ultimately more likely to succeed.

Unpredictability is an important competitive advantage – Just as in sport, unpredictability is key to competitive advantage. If you always do the same thing, your competition knows what you are going to do. Vary your tactics, and you keep everyone on their toes. You also keep your audience or customers interested, which is important for both businesses and sports teams.

The digital economy requires trust and collaboration

In practice, being able to collaborate and vary your tactics as required both have one very firm foundation: teamwork. Building good, solid relationships across the team is essential to ensuring that you all trust each other enough to work together. Those dictating the tactics need to trust others to do the right thing in response, and those hearing the calls need to trust that the call is correct. Building trust takes time, but it is worth every ounce of effort.

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