7 lessons for business from the game of golf

Golf is a global game of great popularity, and is played by people of all ages and in many diverse locations. Various sports surveys suggest that some 50-60 million people across the world play golf regularly. It is a game of great challenge, but also enjoyment. Golfers joke about the satisfaction from those few great shots or those successful holes that provides the incentive to “come back again next week”.

But golf also provides some powerful lessons on how businesses can shape or possibly defy success. Seven lessons in particular stand out.

1. Have a game plan

Golfers know that a game plan is important. Each game is different depending on a whole range of factors including weather conditions, state of the fairways, and the nature of the competition. A good golfer will determine how to play the game in advance, and for instance plan whether a more aggressive club selection is needed for the game because of prevailing conditions.

In business, most organizations will have some form of strategy, and how this strategy or game plan is articulated will vary widely. The issue however is the way that organizations relate their strategy to their day-to-day activity. They will need to flex their strategy in the shorter term to deal with changes in the market place or shifts in customers or suppliers. Having the strategy itself is no guarantee of success, but how it relates to the immediate business activities is crucial. Strategy and execution must be tightly coupled.

2. The game is not over until it is over

How many times do we see golfers getting over-confident about their final score? They may have had a good first half of the game, but the score can turn badly on just one or two strokes or one bad hole. Top players have all too often seen the winner’s trophy in sight, only to find it eluding them in the final few holes of the game.

Sales teams are often under pressure to provide updates on the status of big deals or major proposals in the pipeline. One often hears that a sale is “looking good” and that it has a strong chance of success. But in reality that could be the danger moment as complacency may emerge and snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory. The sale or the deal is not done until it is finalized, and the winner’s trophy is actually in hand.

3. The little things are what count

The score in golf is very dependent on execution and getting the little things right. Sinking that short put or chipping properly onto the green all become critical for the final score. How many times do we hear a player lament “if only I had sunk that putt on the 5th..!”

Organizations can come unstuck on some of the little things that take on a momentum of their own. For instance, a customer service issue may go viral through social media, but not because of the seriousness of the issue per se, but because the customer felt aggrieved at the speed or nature of the response in the first place. The so-called little things in dealing with customers and other stakeholders are so important.

4. Tactical choices really matter

The tactics on each hole need to be carefully considered. The choice of club for a particular shot is most often cited as a key decision to be made. Likewise, the approach to the green is also one of those tactical choices. Should the player loft over a nasty bunker or perhaps play a safer shot shy of the bunker but a little further from the pin?

In business, executives are confronted daily with choices such as product pricing or variations, inventory issues or reactions to competition. Recruitment decisions can also be significant in this domain. Does the organization take a bold stance on pricing to a new customer or does it focus more on maintaining margin?

5. The mental game is crucial

We often hear golfers describe the mental ups and downs of the game, and the importance of the maintaining mental approach. In his book Golf is not a game of perfect, Bob Rotella points out that “Golfing potential depends primarily on a players attitude…”.

Some organizations focus their management development on simulating or practicing situations that resemble real life examples. Also, classroom style case studies have been the focus for many organizations. The blending of these two activities offers a solid approach to helping executives develop their mental capacity to react and respond. They not only can test the ability to react, but also understand how they feel and to appreciate some of the emotional journey involved in staying ahead in their business environment.

6. Don’t complain about the conditions – deal with them

Golf is played in all conditions – the wind, the rain, the heat. The conditions cannot be changed so golfers have to learn to deal with these variables, and change their game or their gear accordingly.

Conditions swirl around in a business context. Factors such the economy or changes in the industry all have a major impact on how organizations perform and indeed grow. Different competitors or behavior of the competition are also factors that have a significant impact. But organizations need to deal with these factors, and develop and execute the right mitigation strategies.

7. You are accountable for your game

Golf is one of those sports where you and you alone are responsible for the outcome. You are not reacting to a sizzling serve over the net as in tennis or a ball being hurled your way as in say baseball. The accountability starts and stops with the individual golfer.

Most organizations place a great emphasis on personal accountability. Yes teams and teamwork are essential, but in the end everyone has a significant responsibility to deliver, and to make sure their personal objectives are met. Organizations with a strong culture of personal accountability generally will be more agile and have greater ability to respond to changes in their marketplace.

In the end, golf and business are about knowing what to do and executing well. Even small improvements will make a difference. As former US President Gerald Ford once said, “I know I am getting better at golf because I am hitting fewer spectators.”


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Filed under Golf, Organisation capabilities, Strategy

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