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Beating the Odds

How the 49ers Turned It Around

In his first year as coach of the San Francisco 49ers, Coach Jim Harbaugh led the team to its first playoff berth since 2002. On Saturday the 49ers host the New Orleans Saints, another franchise that has prospered after decades of futility.

How? How do turnaround artists show people how to win?

Harbaugh said something that really caught my attention. He told a radio interviewer, “We just try to get better every day.”

Sounds so simple. Coaches say it all the time. But just try doing it. Life, as they say, has its ups and downs. Distractions arise. Discouragement sets in. But you can pursue constant improvement. The Japanese call it ‘kaizen.’ Harbaugh himself warned that improvement is a process.

And here are some parts of the process:

Identify what needs to be done. (Task)
Make sure it gets done. (Stay on task)
Make sure it gets done as well as it can be done. (Complete and perfect the task)
Get all the feedback you can. Learn the best way to measure results.
Try again, using all your new information.
Stay motivated for this process.

Peak performance expert Dr. Anders Ericsson, known as the “expert on experts” for his research into improvement, lists four factors in acquiring skill: Motivation to attend to task; practice design in which the task can easily be understood, lots of feedback, and lots of repetitions.

Steve Jobs was a tireless pursuer of a better way. Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs portrays someone who seldom accepted the status quo, even when being treated in the hospital.

“At one point, the pulmonologist tried to put a mask over his face when he was deeply sedated,” Isaacson writes.
“Jobs ripped it off and mumbled that he hated the design and refused to wear it. Though barely able to speak, he ordered them to bring five different options for the mask and he would pick a design he liked. . . . He also hated the oxygen monitor they put on his finger. He told them it was ugly and too complex.”

Any coach can adopt Harbaugh’s ideal of constant improvement, and Dr. Ericsson’s model of achieving it. Just don’t make the mistake of thinking you must add to what already exists.

“Almost all quality improvement comes via simplification of design, manufacturing… layout, processes, and procedures,” said author and speaker Tom Peters.

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” said Da Vinci.

With the 49ers on the rise, the other Bay Area team, the Oakland Raiders, are trying to improve. Owner Mark Davis has hired Reggie McKenzie as their general manager, and McKenzie has fired coach Hue Jackson. McKenzie said he wanted to bring in his own man. Only time will tell how that will turn out.

Meanwhile, way back in the NFL preseason, the Saints beat the 49ers. It will be interesting to see who has improved more since then.


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