From Football to Business Leadership: Simulations as Virtual Reality for Strategy Execution

Tuesday, May 10, 2016 | Category :
    • Blogs
    • Leadership Development
    • Strategy Execution

By Matthew Prostko, Principal, BTS

I recently attended the SXSW Interactive conference in Austin, Texas.  This conference is extremely popular, as it is a great source of insights as to what hot, new technologies are emerging, and features discussion around the most current and relevant business issues.  Anyone who attended would agree that Virtual Reality (VR) technology and the discussion around its potential applications was a key topic this year.  With the recent updates to the Oculus Rift, the excitement around the potential of Virtual Reality continues to grow. 

One of the sessions I attended focused on the use of Virtual Reality in sports applications, featuring the CEO of a VR technology solution company and the head coach of a major college football team. During this discussion, the head coach described his situation and the circumstances that led him to implement VR technology as part of his practice regimen.  The NCAA – the ruling body for major college sports – limits the amount of on-field practice, especially for football.  They do this to preserve the student athletes’ ability to address their academic responsibilities effectively, but also to protect them physically.  Football is a violent game, and extensive practice under game-like conditions can lead to significant injury, or at the very least, cumulative trauma.  Off-field conditioning and classroom study is unregulated and more self-directed, but field practice time is at a premium.

This puts football coaches and players in a difficult situation.  Football requires meticulous execution, and complex collaboration between different roles.  As such, one would expect a very high “Practice to Performance ratio,” or a large amount of time spent practicing compared to the amount of time actually performing the act.  Activities such as sports, music and the military – any endeavor where there is a high expectation of execution proficiency – all require a high Practice to Performance ratio.  But, as described, there are constraints to practice time.

And while conditioning and classroom study are important, nothing replaces actual game-like repetitions.  So, that means that the scarce repetitions available in the narrow practice window must go to just the few starting players.  The remaining players – though many of them will be called upon to play in a game due to injury to the starters – are relegated to simply watching practice. 

So, enter virtual reality technology.  With the help of good equipment and properly produced 3D videos, players can experience multiple repetitions of game situations, outside of restricted practice time and without the threat of injury.  This is especially valuable for players that are not yet on the starting squad and thus not yet garnering those practice repetitions under live-fire, but are preparing for those roles.  By implementing this technology, all of the players are able to experience high-quality practice repetitions outside of traditional practice time and without the physical toll on their bodies.

The coach also described how they recreated the key plays that his players must be able to execute at a high level in order to be successful.  In this way, he could have players experience the key “moments that matter” with a much higher level of repetitions than he would ever be allowed to recreate on the practice field or that they would see in actual game action.

But does virtual reality really offer anything over and above basic game film?  Football coaches and players have been studying game film as a means of preparation since Paul Brown launched the practice in the 1940s.  But there are some key differences.  Primarily, game film does not allow the player to experience the play from their unique perspective on the field.  As such, it does not allow them to replicate the decision-making context, the speed at which they need to react, or the emotional responses generated by the scenario.

In the language of virtual reality, this is referred to as “presence.”  When you have a high-quality virtual reality environment, you become completely immersed in the experience, and truly feel “present” in that virtual place.  A lack of realism, weak technology, or shaky video will all destroy presence and degrade the value of the VR experience.  As a result, the quality of practice is also degraded, and consequently, so is the resulting performance on the field.

So how can the concept of football practice inform our approach to business strategy execution? Well, business leaders face very similar needs and constraints with respect to quality practice – which makes virtual reality a similarly interesting metaphor to explore in this context. 

First and foremost, the common practice-to-performance ratio for business leaders is, unlike those other endeavors I mentioned earlier, shockingly low to non-existent.  The role of leading teams never stops, and thus we all rarely push the “pause button” long enough to take the time to practice our craft.  That lack of practice has an impact.  Recent studies have concluded that roughly 68% of strategic initiatives fail to meet their execution goals, due, by and large, to poor leadership.  And the cost of poor leadership capability within large enterprise is significant.  SAP recently released a study that quantified those costs.  Their research showed that a 1% loss in Employee Engagement, Culture Health, or Employee Retention, each carries an impact of between $30-70M annually.

Despite those statistics, our low practice-to-performance ratio persists.  And when we do take the time to practice, much of our leadership development activities fail to meet the test of “presence.” They often take the form of lecture content and quick group activities that are based on theoretical frameworks or adapted from research taken across a broad selection of industries and companies.  How many of the leadership development programs that you have attended actually replicated “game conditions” to the point where the practice you experienced really prepared you to execute in live conditions back on the job?  Think about it: would we ever let a pilot fly a plane, when the only practice he or she had was ground school lecture and table discussions?

Aside from the style of the development program, the context must also be relevant.  Even with state-of-the-art VR technology, football players playing the video game “Halo” on an Oculus Rift are not going to improve their decision-making and execution on the football field. Similarly, business leadership training must address the key moments that leaders will face back on the job in their role, at their company, with their strategy, customers and culture.  Leadership best practices from a retail store environment are not going to be very useful for a semiconductor product engineering leader.

This is where customized business simulations come in. BTS is a consulting company focused on the people side of strategy; committed to helping large enterprises improve their execution, and generate better results, faster.  And given the high expectations of reliable execution and complex collaboration within large enterprises, we believe that business leadership practice is key.  To really develop new capabilities, lecture and table discussions will not suffice – a change in information does not equal a change in behavior.  We believe that if we want people to have the competence and confidence to execute in the key moments, we must recreate, or simulate, those moments, and allow people to practice ‘great’ execution.

But we also believe that leadership is relentlessly contextual – that what is required of leaders is unique to each company, depending upon their industry, business model, culture, current place in their life cycle, and specific goals.  As such, the ‘moments’ we practice must be just as contextually relevant – fully-customized simulations that recreate the key leadership scenarios and business decision-making situations that leaders will experience back on the job.

That realism, and the competitive tension that goes along with moments where value is created or destroyed, is critical to creating ‘presence’ in that practice.  Without it, leadership development programs lack the immersive quality necessary to generate real, lasting value.  Without that level of commitment to relevancy, at best you will generate little to no true change in workplace behavior.  At worst, you will waste the time of your most valuable human capital resources and destroy engagement and faith in the organization’s commitment to talent development and execution. 

BTS is relentless in creating simulation experiences that allow leaders to be ‘in the moment,’ practicing great execution in the moments that matter in their unique context to ensure a change in behavior and mindset on activities that are cleanly aligned to driving business results. We are committed to creating ‘virtual reality’ for business leaders; helping them to improve their ‘practice to performance ratio’ through contextually relevant leadership development experiences. Easily used either live, virtually, or online, these business simulations create a safe environment for people to practice the things they deal with on the job without risk.

In conclusion: leadership is inexorably contextual, and therefore, so must be our leadership development programs and opportunities for practice.  They must replicate the situations that leaders will face back on the job.  The tradeoffs must be real, the consequences of both good and bad decisions must be evident, and the tension involved in the decision or activity must be palpable.  Only in this way can we create true “presence” in our “practice,” delivering truly immersive experiences that translate to actual capability-building that can be demonstrated reliably back on the job. Malcolm Gladwell popularized the notion that excellence could only come after 10,000 hours of practice.  But people often neglect to mention that his research clarified the need for “high-quality” practice that was competitive and immersive – just going through the motions would not cut it.  As the famous basketball coach, John Wooden, once said, “Practice does not make perfect.  Only perfect practice can make perfect.”


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