Football Coaches pore over game film to spot things they'd never see in real time. Check it out: When the defense blitzes, the free safety picks up the running back. So by picking off the safety, the middle of the field will be wide open for a screen pass. The value of this meticulous observation is intuitive in the sports world. After all, coaches get a week to review a 60-minute game. In the organizational world, where every day is game day, such analysis is less common. It's unfortunate because studying the game film can yield unexpected insights.
Consider the work of Doug Lemov, a consultant to school districts that were desperate to improve. Lemov, a former principal and teacher, was convinced that better teaching was the answer. Stanford research shows that in one year, the top 5% of teachers can raise students a grade level and a half. The bottom 5% put their kids a half-grade behind.
Given those stats, some people have suggested firing the bottom 5% of teachers. (Somewhere, a teachers union rep just had a good chuckle.) But there are 3.7 million teachers in the United States. To replace the bottom 5% with fresh talent, you'd need 185,000 new recruits. That's a big number, equivalent to recruiting every last dentist in the country to join the ranks. (Somewhere, a dentist just had a good chuckle. On his boat.)
Lemov wondered: What if we could make all teachers a little bit better? There was a problem, though. No one knew what made some teachers better than others. Most people thought some teachers just had "it" and the rest didn't.
Lemov suspected there was technique underneath the teaching magic — and if he could find it, he could teach it. So he identified a classic top-5% teacher at North Star Academy in Newark, New Jersey, and asked if he could observe the class. Lemov's buddy, a wedding videographer, agreed to record the teacher in action (a welcome relief from the Electric Slide).
Five years later, having recorded and analyzed hundreds of hours of videotape, Lemov has some answers. In his new book, Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College, Lemov reveals what he learned. As he expected, great teachers have a lot in common. For instance, star teachers circulate around the whole space of their classrooms. They are always within seconds of being at the shoulder of any student in the room. Less experienced teachers rarely "broke the plane," the imaginary line running between the blackboard and the first row of student desks.
Great teachers also start class before the opening bell rings with a "Do Now" assignment on the board. (Find the area of a triangle with a base of 3 inches and a height of 4 inches.) Their students are trained to come in, get settled, and begin working on it. The technique is powerful: If a teacher can transform five minutes of "transition time" into productive time, that's like adding 15 extra class periods to the school year. Lemov now spends his time training crowds of teachers to use these techniques, which are easy to absorb with practice. And the tips would have remained unknown if Lemov hadn't watched the game film.
Businesses tend to get itchy when you talk about filming employees. The word "surveillance" is never far behind. But you don't need videotape to generate new insights. Consider Jump Associates, a nontraditional strategy-consulting firm whose past projects include assisting NBC with its plan for moving the NFL's weekly prime-time showcase from Monday to Sunday and helping Target revamp its back-to-school offerings. Jump consultants like to watch the game film from their client meetings. Video isn't feasible; you can't put a Flip cam in your client's face. Instead, staff associates are asked to watch the action and write down their observations. When was the client very engaged? When did Jump employees seem off their game?
After every client meeting, the staff holds a debriefing, modeled on the Army's after-action reviews. People give each other feedback, offering at least one positive example and one concrete suggestion about how to improve. One pattern uncovered by a debrief was that the firm's gen-Y staffers tended to use "uptalk" — that vocal tic where, like, a statement? Comes out sounding like a question? The uptalk tended to make the young staffers sound less confident, and they resolved to work on it.
Even top executives get their own game-film breakdown. For instance, a Jump senior associate shadowed founder Dev Patnaik for six months. The two debriefed after every meeting and every client interaction. The implicit barter was clear. The senior associate got incredible insight on how senior leaders act, and Patnaik received something that senior executives rarely get — feedback.
Patnaik recalls a comment on one of his presentations: "The associate told me, 'You started with an intro but didn't hit your stride until about 10 to 12 minutes in, when you told a story. Why not start with the story?' " Patnaik says the advice boosted his energy in presentations. It helped him see that "stories are what excite me."
What insights might your team be overlooking because no one is observing carefully enough? Might be time to press the pause button and start screening some game film. There are some things you'll never see unless you look.
Dan Heath and Chip Heath are the authors of the No. 1 New York Times best seller Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, as well as Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.
A version of this article appeared in the June 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.