A recent Sports Illustrated article really grabbed my attention as being relevant to the dynamics that I see playing out in corporate environments every day.

The article, entitled “The Sabanization of College Football,” looks at the influence of the University of Alabama’s Head Coach Nick Saban on the rest of the field. Essentially, it boils down to one conclusion: based on Saban’s sustained success, college football coaches are increasingly realizing that culture and talent development trumps strategy over time.

College football, through much of the 80s, 90s, and early part of the last decade, went through a wave of strategies du jour: the “west coast offense” to the “run and shoot” to the “spread formation” to the “zone read”, and so on. Innovative minds thought up bright, differentiating plans, until, quickly, the competition adjusted and caught up.

Saban, who has been a consistent winner at the college level during previous stops at the University of Toledo, Michigan State University, and Louisiana State University, has, on the other hand, favored keeping his program focused on “The Process.”

In short, it’s about finding the right people, and creating a culture that focuses their effort and fosters personal and collective improvement on a day to day basis.

As the article describes of the Alabama program, which has won two national championships in the past three years (in addition to Saban’s championship at LSU in 2003), while other programs spin in circles trying to out-X and out-O each other on the chalk board, Saban keeps it simple: “the true success of his system hinges on the selection of players and the way they are trained once they arrive on campus.” In short, it’s about finding the right people, and creating a culture that focuses their effort and fosters personal and collective improvement on a day to day basis.

In some cases, Saban’s process has required heavy investment: since arriving at Alabama at 2004, Saban has overseen the construction of a $15M academic center, and a $9M upgrade to the weight lifting facility, in order to give his players access to the best possible resources to execute The Process. In other cases, Saban creates experiences for his staff and players that are simple and free, and reinforce the cultural values of the company. For instance, at the beginning of the year, every member of the football program, from the quarterback to the media relations coordinator, gets a list with exactly what is expected of him in his role. This reinforces their mantra, “Do Your Job.” Similarly, he keeps a constant, highly visible 18-month master calendar to reinforce the importance of planning, and draws a picture of a bus in meetings, placing various staff members’ initials under the bus when they try to shed blame for a personal failure on someone else.

In Corporate Communications, we love to rely on sports analogies to explain our strategies. But in this case, there seems to be a lesson on the perils of strategy at all.