"Keep your eye on the ball"


What business has in common with cricket.

This summer, I started playing cricket again after a hiatus of many years.

It was a very enjoyable experience and, although not especially elegant to watch or prolific from a pure numbers point of view, it did reinforce several lessons from my junior playing days, that felt every bit as relevant today as they were back then.

“Keep your eye on the ball”.

Pretty obvious advice for any batsman really, but also easy to overlook amidst the myriad distractions of diverse bowling actions, erratic line and length, unpredictable bounce, ever-changing field placings, scoreboard pressure, quick singles, fluctuating weather conditions and so on.

In such circumstances, it is very easy for the novice batsman (i.e. me) to make the wrong decision. To try to smash the ball they should be defending or leave the ball they should be hitting.

To predetermine what they are going to do as the bowler runs in rather than making a considered decision based on the ball they are actually facing - to watch the ball all the way onto the bat.

By contrast, top professional cricketers often seem to make the game look ridiculously easy because they have a clear-minded focus on what is required and they have the skills to be able to achieve it.

It struck me one week as I returned to the pavilion after a rather briefer innings than I had anticipated, that there were certain parallels between my experiences on the cricket field and my experiences from the world of marketing and communications.

The business world has become increasingly complex and the horizons are becoming more and more short term.

The digital revolution has led to many companies reinventing their business models and incorporating ever more complex processes and technologies to allow them to compete.

Meanwhile, a combination of the availability of real time data plus financial pressures from demanding boards of directors has led to shorter and shorter reporting cycles, with the onus on generating sales tomorrow and not worrying quite so much about the future.

Not only that, but distractions are everywhere – big data, 1st party data, 3rd party data, adtech, martech, AI, mobile first, multi-channel strategy, content marketing, single customer views, programmatic, optimisation, affiliate marketing, automation, attribution modelling…. the list goes on.

All highly important in their own way, but where on earth should one place one’s focus?

However, without that sense of focus, attention can easily become fragmented and one risks ending up doing lots of things poorly instead of doing fewer things really well.

“Keep your eye on the ball”.

Many of us are attracted to the new and the shiny...to taking risks...to adopting bold new strategies to defeat the competition. For starters, it is more exciting be a part of and (we hope) it may be the type of radical approach that can transform a game or business.

But conversely, there are other occasions when taking a more considered, methodical approach is the best strategy.

The most successful batsmen keep it simple. They can read the context of any situation and intuitively understand what to do. They know their own game and they don’t lose sight of the very strengths that got them into the team in the first place.

Similarly, the best businesses typically behave in an equivalent way, subconsciously taking a leaf from the batsman’s almanac:

Reading the game – they have a deep understanding of the dynamics of their marketplace, the changing needs of their customers and the relative performances of their competitors.

Responding to the situation – they have an outward-looking, curious approach to the market they operate in, actively anticipating threats and exploring for new opportunities.

Maintaining flexibility – they are also sufficiently agile to be able to adjust their approach where needed to ensure they are always performing at their most effective.

Playing to their strengths – they have an objective, customer-focused understanding of their company’s strengths & weaknesses, ensuring they focus on what they are good at.

Seeing things through – they are not easily distracted by exciting new projects and initiatives, instead applying relentless focus to delivering on existing projects – always finishing what they started.

As the cricket season draws to a close, I will attempt to transfer these learnings from the cricket pitch to the boardroom, all the time repeating my rediscovered mantra…

“Keep your eye on the ball”.

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