Nonstop international travel makes you fat and unhealthy. But it also gives you lots of hotel soaps, airline toiletries and great national stories that can serve as business parables. I am fat, with a heck of a lot of soap. And I collect these national stories. You might remember that I brought you “hammer time” from China and the role of Benga in cultural integration from Africa. Now I bring you a football story from Brazil.
In two different meetings in São Paulo, while talking through translators, a CEO ended a specific part of the conversation with, “Tá legal, seu Feola, mas o senhor já combinou tudo isso com os russos?” My translator laughed and said, “It’s a great little football story that is about the best plans going wrong. I’ll tell you later.” After the first meeting I forgot to ask the translator to clarify. After the second, I insisted. The basic story is this:
In 1958, the Soviet Union was favored to win the World Cup. It was the rising superpower and symbolized brutal efficiency and fitness, combined with the collective will of a perfect team. The Soviets had beaten the Nazis in World War II; they had launched Sputnik 1; and their football team had won the Olympic gold medal at the 1956 games in Melbourne. In the group matches, they faced Brazil, a team of youth, individual finesse, a touch of chaos and two of the globe’s greatest football stars, Pelé and Garrincha. Garrincha was a little, bow-legged fellow who could dribble your socks off. Through genius and magic, he dribbled around the Soviet defenders, hitting the post with his first shot, then setting up a Pelé shot that hit the crossbar. Although neither shot scored, the opening moments of the game have been called the greatest three minutes in football history. Brazil went on to win: 2–0.
The legend goes that, in preparing for the match, Brazilian coach Vicente Feola had mapped out a very complicated play showing how the team would score its goals. Brazilian player A was to pass to player B, who would dribble around Soviet player 1. Player B would then pass a long ball to player C, who would run past Soviet player 2, catching him napping. Player C would then dribble around Soviets 3, 4 and 5, none of whom would be able to stop him. He would finally send a cross to player D, who would head it into the goal past Soviets 6–11. Garrincha, whose career would be defined by ill-discipline, listened to all this and then asked (in essence), “Fine, Mr. Feola, but have you agreed to all of that with the Russians?”
Insert laughter here. The point of the story—which is clearly well known in the Brazilian business community—is that perfect strategies are easy if you assume your competition will cooperate fully. Life is perfect in PowerPoint slides. Life is less perfect on the street. Garrincha was skeptical that the Brazilians could win with perfect planning. He knew that beating the Soviets would require more than just a plan. This quote is a reality check, and some view the story as a perfect expression of game theory.
In our world, we argue that the nature of strategy has changed fundamentally. Trying to perfectly predict the future actions of your competitors has shifted to trying to adapt to market fluctuations and turbulence faster than anyone else. We’ve moved from perfect anticipation (assuming you can get the Russians to agree), to fast adaptation, to Garrincha’s bow-legged dance. That should you remind you of music, which is another story …