NEW YORK ( TheStreet ) -- The best innovations do not come from industry best practices. They are generated by applying unconventional paradigms to conventional problems. A particularly instructive case comes from the Texas Tech football team. This is a story of an unconventional coach who generated and applied a new paradigm that fundamentally changed college football.
From 1990-1999, Texas Tech won 53% of its games and averaged 27 points per game -- a respectable program. Over the next ten years, Tech won 66% of its games and averaged 37 points per game. Why the change? Tech hired Mike Leach in 2000. And Leach changed everything.
Mike Leach is not a traditional football coach. He did not use fame or connections to make it big. In fact, Leach never started on his high school football team and quit after his junior year. He graduated from BYU then went on to Pepperdine Law School to finish in the top third of his class. After law school, to his in-laws chagrin, he decided to become a football coach. Leach started his coaching career as an assistant for one year at Cal Poly, then one year at College of the Desert followed by a year with the Pori Bears, an American football program in Finland. All-in-all, he worked as an assistant coach at seven programs in his first thirteen years. As with any innovator, Coach Leach was seen by most as insufferable, but by others as brilliant.
Typically, it takes a college program at least five years to recruit and shape high school athletes into a competitive team. Not so at Texas Tech. By the end of Leachâ¿¿s first three seasons, quarterback Kliff Kingsbury was ranked fourth all-time for NCAA total passing yards. Same athletes; very different results. Kingsbury was replaced by B.J. Symons, a senior who had sat on the bench for three years. In his only starting season, Symons set a single season NCAA passing yardage record. Symons was replaced by another one-year starter, Sonny Cumbie who ended his only season ranked sixth all-time in single season passing yards. Next was Cody Hodges, another single season starter who led the NCAA in passing yards and threw for 643 yards against Kansas State, the 4th best single game performance in NCAA Division I history.
Despite being the best passer in college football, Cody Hodges was not drafted by any NFL team. He ended his football career with the Oklahoma City Yard Dawgz. Cumbie and Symons fared no better. Kingsburyâ¿¿s three-year NFL career ended with only slightly more than one quarter of playing time. Although Techâ¿¿s quarterbacks consistently posted world-class results they did so with less than world-class talent. In fact, not one of its four quarterbacks was pursued by a first-tier university. Great Texas football players play for the University of Texas, University of Oklahoma, Texas A&M or TCU. Texas Tech got the leftovers. Talent did not produce Techâ¿¿s success. Its secret was a paradigm-changing strategy.
Leachâ¿¿s offense turned college football on its head. The goal of most college teams is a balanced offense â¿¿ equal strength running and passing. Not at Texas Tech. Said Leach, â¿¿Iâ¿¿ve thought about going the whole season without running a single running play.â¿ An average college teams passes the ball 35 times a game. Tech averaged 53.
Unlike a typical football team, Leach spread his offensive linemen an armâ¿¿s length apart and sent all eligible receivers on a pass route. Tech football looked more like playground football than an NCAA powerhouse â¿¿ â¿¿Mike and Joe, you block, everyone else get open.â¿ Grossly oversimplified for sure, but receivers running in many different directions baffled the defense. This was a new paradigm; one that worked â¿¿ really well.
Unlike technology companies, Texas Tech could not protect its intellectual property. There are no patents in football. Every play was available for the whole world to see. So, of course, others copied it right? No, they didnâ¿¿t. When it comes to innovation and change, even outstanding people can become irrational. Rather than adopt Techâ¿¿s clearly superior system, fellow NCCA coaches mocked him. â¿¿Thatâ¿¿s not football!â¿ Maybe not, but it wins games.
How can people, as motivated to win as college coaches, dismiss a patently better model? Because new paradigms make established leaders feel weak and out of control. It happens even in the best companies every day. Good ideas that threaten an established leaderâ¿¿s view of the world are ridiculed and, in many cases, the idea generator is shot. It happened to Chryslerâ¿¿s Lee Iacooca when he was fired from Ford despite generating $2B in profit in the same year; and to Jet Blueâ¿¿s founder David Neeleman when he was fired from Southwest Airlines.
Texas Tech did not rebuild its program with industry best practices. Adopting best practices has potential to bring an organization to parity with competitors. But competitive advantage is created by doing something significantly better. Competitive advantage comes from applying unconventional paradigms to convention problems. Itâ¿¿s sustained by competitors too proud to change.
Hall is managing director of Human Capital Systems (www.humancapitalsystems.com), a firm that designs systems for improving workforce performance. He is also an instructor in Duke Corporate Education's teaching network and author of The New Human Capital Strategy. Hall was formerly a senior vice president at ABN AMRO Bank in Amsterdam and IBM Asia-Pacific's executive in charge of executive leadership and organization effectiveness. During his tenure, IBM was twice ranked No. 1 in the world in Hewitt/Chief Executive magazine's "Top Company for Leaders." Hall completed his Ph.D in industrial-organizational psychology at Tulane University, with a dissertation on people management practices of Japanese corporations.