When it comes to strategy, the world of sports provides plenty of examples of what not to do. Case in point: the Harvard-Yale football game last weekend. Harvard prevailed 14-10 due to one of the biggest strategic blunders in the history of sports. Leading the game 10-7 with only 2:25 left, Yale’s first-year coach Tom Williams decided not to punt the ball on fourth down with 22 yards to go from his own 26-yard line. Yale’s fake punt was unsuccessful and Harvard marched in to score the winning touchdown.

Afterward, many including the Chicago Tribune editorial board, came to his defense, saying it was the right move. Their arguments centered on statistical analyses showing higher probability for success not punting (79%) than punting (70%). What all the supporters failed to take into account is context. Context is the current situation, which in this case showed only 2:25 left on the clock and a fourth down with a long way to go.

Good strategists know that two of the most important tools at their disposal are distance and time. Review many military battles and you’ll see how great generals used distance and time to defeat their enemies. In the case of Yale, they should have used both by having their punter (the top-rated one in the Ivy League) create greater distance for Harvard to travel in a decreasing period of time. They failed to use either and it cost them the game.

We evaluate strategy on how well it achieves our goals. Let’s assume Yale’s goal was to win the game. Coach William’s strategy of running the ball on fourth down and 22 yards to go failed in helping them reach their goal. The Chicago Tribune editor wrote: “Even if the gamble doesn’t always work, it will almost always be more fun than dutifully kicking the ball away.” This is akin to saying air travel will almost always be more exciting if you skydive from the plane without a parachute. Exciting, yes. Effective, no. This lack of critical thinking is shocking until we recall that this is the same editorial board that endorsed Rod Blagojevich for Illinois Governor…twice!

How are you using time and distance in your strategy to outperform the competition?


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