12 Jul 2018 19:45 IST

Possession doesn’t mean you win the game

Skills we possess are a waste if we stop listening to customers and linger on past successes

Here’s an interesting pattern that presented itself during the FIFA World Cup: teams with ball possession failed to convert it into goals. Germany enjoyed 67 per cent ball possession; Spain, 69 per cent; and Argentina, 64 per cent — yet, together, they only managed to score 15 goals, and were all knocked out of the tournament early on.

This was also seen when Uruguay beat Portugal 2-1, Portugal had only 32 per cent possession; when Sweden beat Mexico 3-0, Mexico had 34 per cent possession, and when Croatia beat Argentina, the latter had 41 per cent possession.

In the business world too, we find that possession is not enough to win. One might possess the skills, intellectual property, technology, and a range of products, but unless that is converted into an executable strategy, it will not deliver results. As students of business, it is important we learn this lesson and apply it from the beginning of our careers, to our skills, learning, experiences, and money.

Harnessing the insight

A good example of a company that harnessed this insight is Saregama.

Saregama’s biggest asset was its bank of three-lakh songs. Despite the treasure trove, it was badly affected by the wave of digital music consumption aided by the availability of free or cheap music on various online platforms, and inexpensive telecom data tariffs.

As RP-SG Group Chairman Sanjiv Goenka put it in a recent interview with The Hindu, “Three years ago, I was struggling to find the revival and the reinvention path, trying to figure out how to deliver music through a relevant platform.” Then came Carvaan, a digital audio player loaded with recorded music. With a retro Murphy transistor look, Carvaan offered music nostalgia in a hands-off or, as Vikram Mehra, Managing Director, Saregama India, likes to call it: lean-back mode. Launched in October 2017, Carvaan is now poised to cross the milestone of having sold one lakh units and is being hailed as a success story. It translated possession into a well-deserved goal.

When does possession become impotent? When we stop listening. Organisations, especially those that have enjoyed some success, get so internally focused that they gradually forget to listen to the customer. Mehra sums up this attitude well.

“We start thinking that we can run marketing sitting out here in our glass offices. I firmly believe if you want to understand what customers want, you have to go out of your offices and go to the customers’ homes and not just one or two. It needs to be a regular process because as we climb up the social ladder and get fancier positions as corporate executives, we start believing the world is what we know and that the world is people like us. That might not be a true representation of how things function and that is why, since 2005, I make sure that every month I visit 25 customer homes.” This lack of listening begins when the company starts to admire their possession, obsess about it and, before they know it, they have walled themselves in a room with mirrors. The same thing happens to leaders.

Stop looking back!

We rely on past success. As American journalist Gerald Nachman said, “Nothing fails like success.” Sometimes organisations that have had a strong run, or leaders who have had a track record of winning, start to believe their own press. Arrogance creeps in, glory from the past is never forgotten and is banked on.

When this happens, a play-not-to-lose versus a play-to-win culture sets in. Here is another football anecdote, this one from D Shivakumar, former CEO at PepsiCo India who is currently with the Aditya Birla Group. Shivakumar is an avid Manchester United supporter and writes of a match with Barcelona where the score was tied 1-1 at half time. United fans expected a victory, but the team eventually lost 1-3 to the Spanish giant.

When he analysed the stats for the match, he found that Barca had 337 passes and the bulk of those were between Lionel Messi, Andrés Iniesta and Xavi, who, as forwards, were best placed to score. United, on the other hand, had 170 passes, the bulk which were between the goalkeeper and the defenders. His takeaway: “if you are not playing to win, you will never win. United, that day, was playing not to lose.”

Because of their attachment to past successes, leaders attempt to protect that status rather than focus on a foundation to build new achievements on. Possession becomes meaningless and hollow.

When imagination fails

We lack imagination. Often, we shackle our imagination in the way we define ourselves and our organisation. We tend to define both by what we do rather than what we have. This creates a flawed focus on possession and a distraction from fulfilling potential and innovative growth.

Amazon would never have grown to what it is today if it had defined itself as an online seller of books. Instead, it chose to define itself by what it had — the ecosystem, processes, technology, reach it had to make shopping easy for people, and its ability to cater to a customer’s needs and wants — from A to Z.

Netflix would never be the entertainment behemoth is is today if it had thought itself as a supplier of movie DVDs. Instead, it relied on what it had — a library of high quality movies with an analytical and intuitive search engine. It seamlessly made the switch to online streaming because of its connect with customers. Uber sees itself not as a cab aggregator but as a tech enabler for people and goods. Thus, extensions such as Uber Eats are born.

Teams that hog possession are often hampered by their lack of imagination on what to do when they have the ball. This is why many acquisitions fail — coveted from afar but frittered away when gained. Therefore, leaders must learn to translate this power of possession into the power of results.

These are simple truths but rarely easy to implement. As football legend Johan Cryuff said,“Playing football is very simple, but playing simple football is the hardest thing there is.”

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