When I help companies implement the Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS®), we focus on making them both “smart” and “healthy”. “Smart” is about your products, processes, individual technical skills, technology, IP – the “hard” stuff. “Healthy” is about your people – who they are, what they value, how they behave, how they work together and communicate – the “soft” stuff. Unfortunately, given the speed and breadth of communication and knowledge sharing enabled by the Internet, the “hard” stuff is very easy to copy today. Therefore, the real competitive advantage comes from the “soft” stuff and having great “team health”. (Author Patrick Lencioni covers this in depth in his excellent book “The Advantage”).

The two weeks before the Super Bowl allow fans from the 30 teams who are not playing in Super Bowl XLIX to reflect on what went wrong. (Next year’s Super Bowl number will be really boring – Super Bowl L). My adopted home of Chicago and the Bears provide a great lesson in the importance of “team health” beyond its usual meaning in the NFL (injury lists, etc.).

Despite two recent championships for the Blackhawks, one for the White Sox, and a run of 6 titles in 8 years in the 90s by the Bulls (notice one team missing here?), Chicago is a Bears town. The mood in the office on Mondays in the fall is affected by how they did on Sunday. Expectations were sky-high for this year’s team after their team record-setting offensive performance last year and some good defensive additions in the off-season. There was Super Bowl talk in the air. Instead, they finished 5-11, last in their division and 7th worst in the NFL. The second half of the season was especially painful, as they lost their last 5 games and 6 of their last 8, and 2nd year coach Marc Trestman appeared to “lose” the locker room. What happened?

Certainly there were poor individual performances, as well as injuries, this season, but I believe the reason Trestman lost the team is due to the other kind of team health. He tried to impose a radically different culture on the team, rather than trying to understand and leverage the positive elements in the existing culture of the team. For example, the team was very used to calling each other out on the practice field or in games for mistakes. Trestman banned that practice, preferring to discuss these matters in team meetings. That not only eliminated the benefits of immediate correction, but it took an inherent team core value (“We hold each other accountable on the field”) of peer-to-peer accountability, the most powerful type, and threw it out the window. His “top down” accountability approach didn’t work either – there seemed to be no consequences (benching, etc.) for mistakes.

Trestman also allowed Lance Briggs to miss a practice and fly to California and back to open a restaurant the week before their regular season opener, and Brandon Marshall to fly to NY and back to tape a TV show nearly every week, things the prior coaching staff would never have allowed (the players wouldn’t even have asked!!). So much for any core value like “Team first, me second”. Instead, he tried to create team “bonding” via silly ideas like not allowing units (defensive line, etc.) to have their own spaces and even suggesting separating units in the locker room, something he was talked out of. Some team members and at least one coach used Twitter or the sports media to air their concerns – clear violations of team protocol and recent culture.

You can get away with some of this when things are going really well in spite of it, but when things start to head in the wrong direction, it can really snowball. The lesson here is that “core values” or culture are inherent in an organization and need to be discovered, not imposed, especially if there are positive and productive ones (some really unhealthy organizations may not have any positive ones). If you find yourself leading a new team or organization, spend some time discovering and understanding the existing culture before you “lose” your team.

Thankfully, the Bears’ two-year experiment in culture change is over and they seem to have hired a new GM and coaching staff who “get” the Chicago Bears culture. I guess we’ll see come September.