Bo Schembechler: Emphasize Execution, Not Innovation

Bo SchembechlerWhenever things aren’t going your way, whenever business is slow, whenever health issues arise, whenever you find yourself in the middle of a losing streak; there’s a tendency to go searching for a quick and innovative fix.

You pay for some innovative marketing system to help your business grow, you buy some magic pill that promises to cure all your health issues, or you go searching for the latest self-help fad everyone is talking about.

While it’s important to adapt to changing conditions, a “quick fix” innovative solution will rarely solve your problems. The solution to whatever problem you’re facing will usually be found in execution, not innovation.

Hall of Fame college football coach Bo Schembechler won 13 Big Ten championships during his 21 years as head coach at Michigan. In the passage below, Bo explains why execution always trumps innovation…


I’ve always believed eye-popping innovation is not as important as perfect execution. And perfection’s a lot harder to achieve.

Even when you come up with some great new idea, it’ll be copied so fast, you can’t believe it. And then it comes down to execution, which is why mastering the basic fundamentals applies to any field you’re in.

Now I have to admit, there was a time when I doubted if fundamentals were still enough to produce top-notch football teams. I even wondered if the game had passed me by.

This crisis of confidence occurred after our infamous 1984 season, when we finished 6-6. In the offseason, I went to one of the national coaching conferences with a few hundred other coaches, and they had some hotshot young high school coach from California explain his new whiz-bang system of defense.

That really caught my eye. I’m thinking, Maybe our approach at Michigan is just too simple to succeed in the modern era. Boy, that was an awful feeling.

But after this guy finishes his slide show, someone in the audience asks, “If your defensive schemes are so great, then why did your team give up 400 yards a game last season?”

The hotshot replied—and I will never forget this—“We were just a poor tackling team.”

Well, hell! That tells you all you need to know! You throw out 50 percent of that fancy stuff, and spend 15 more minutes every day practicing the most basic thing in football: TACKLING. That’s all!

I walked out of that auditorium, and I knew what we were going to do: Get back to basics! Get back to Michigan football! And I was determined that we were going to do it better than anyone else.

Blocking and tackling! Blocking and tackling! Blocking and tackling! Every business has its blocking and tackling, and if you can’t do those basics well then nothing else matters.


— Bo Schembechler, from his book (with John U. Bacon) Bo’s Lasting Lessons

Bo Schembechler’s rivalry with Woody Hayes at Ohio State epitomized this philosophy. Both football teams were criticized by some for their lack of innovation, but Bo and Woody didn’t care. Their teams were dominant because of their execution, because of how well they blocked and tackled.

As a wise football coach once told me, “You can out-X-and-O your opponent all day long, but if you can’t block and tackle, none of it matters.”

It’s important to keep up with the times and adapt, but it won’t matter if you haven’t mastered the fundamentals.

You can have the world’s most innovative marketing system, but if the product you’re trying to sell is flawed—if people simply don’t want to buy it—then the marketing strategy won’t matter.

There may be quick-fix pills available to help with a health issue, but they often come with side effects. Getting back to the basics of good health—eating smart, exercising, managing stress, and getting plenty of sleep—will do much more to eliminate most health issues in the long run.

When you find yourself hitting one setback after another and you’re overwhelmed with stress, fear, and worry, it’s easy to panic and go looking for a quick fix to get back on track. But more often than not, the solution is not all that innovative or exciting. The solution is to simply get back to the fundamentals of focusing on your attitude and your effort in the present moment.

Here’s the thing to remember: innovation won’t help you if your execution is flawed and superior execution will always defeat superior innovation.

How easy it is to lose track of that in life.

When things aren’t going well, don’t panic and don’t throw money at the problem searching for some innovative, magical solution. Instead, get back to the basics. Improve your product, your health, and your mindset by focusing on the fundamentals.

Eliminating negative self-talk, approaching problems with a never-back-down attitude, and moving forward with focused effort on only the things you can controlthese are the fundamentals of success.

Don’t lose sight of the fundamentals.