The Dangers of Business Bowling

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My mother was raised on a plantation in Haiti. Interesting upbringing, to be sure, and there are many stories—some involving voodoo. This isn’t one of them. This is a story about bowling. (You: “Why, Bill, if you have freakin’ voodoo stories, would you choose to tell one about bowling?” Me: “Because this one has a point…and besides, the voodoo stories are too weird.”) So here, as a lesson for business leaders, is the story of my mother’s bowling catastrophe.

It was my grandfather’s plantation, and it had, among other things, a bowling alley. There wasn’t much to do in Haiti in the 1920s and 1930s, so my mother and her siblings spent a fair amount of time bowling. Then, in her mid-20s, my mother moved to Santa Fe and got a job in a bank. Turns out the bank had a bowling team. The conversation went like this:

Everybody in the bank: “We have a bowling team. Would you like to join?”

My mother: “No thank you.”

Everybody in the bank: “Well…have you ever bowled?”

My mother (quietly): “Yes.”

Everybody in the bank: “What’s your average?”

My mother (almost imperceptibly quietly): “260.” [Note to non-bowlers: In bowling, 300 is a perfect score. An average of 260 is professional level.]

Everybody in the bank (after a stunned silence): “You are SO joining our bowling team!”

So my mother reluctantly joined the bowling team. On the night of the first match, all the other team members were giddy with excitement. They had a ringer! The match was pretty even when, at long last, it was my mother’s turn. The ringer was up! She took the ball, approached the line, and let it go.

Gutter ball.

Then another gutter ball.

Every ball she bowled that night was a gutter ball. The following day, she resigned her position on the bowling team, to no protest whatsoever.

So what went wrong? Well, it turns out that the bowling alley on the plantation was made of packed dirt. Over the years, a groove had formed in the lane—a groove that guided the ball almost unfailingly to a strike. Unfortunately, the bowling alleys in Santa Fe didn’t provide such a groove.

Okay, why should you, the noble business leader, care about my mother’s bowling trauma? Because the same thing can happen to you (metaphorically speaking). Here’s how it happens: You find a system, procedure, or strategy that brings you success. Because it does bring you success, you repeat it. This is good policy. But if you keep repeating it, to the exclusion of all other systems, procedures, or strategies, you may find that your strategy has become a rut. It’s become so easy that you hardly even have to think about it. But if and when the playing field (or bowling alley, to keep the metaphor going) changes (and it will change), your rut, your groove, has become so embedded that you can’t adapt.

The bottom line is that what brought you success in one situation won’t necessarily bring you success in another. Yes, core skills and abilities are important, but you need to keep reevaluating how you and your team are using those skills and abilities. Take some time to look at your strategies for success. Are they still working for you? Or are you using them simply because they’re familiar and easy? How well will they hold up if the situation changes?

Obligatory Beatles tie-in: The Beatles’ core skill was songwriting. But rather than write the same old “yeah, yeah, yeah” songs over and over again, they changed with the situation (in this case, the growth and maturation of themselves and their fans).

My mom had a very short bowling career. It’s your job as a leader to make sure your team’s success is a little more long-term.


About the Author:

29-time Emmy Award winner and Hall of Fame keynote speaker Bill Stainton, CSP is an expert on Innovation, Creativity, and Breakthrough Thinking. He helps leaders and their teams come up with innovative solutions — on demand — to their most challenging problems.
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