The Agile Crimson Tide

The Alabama Crimson Tide lost on Monday evening, giving the Clemson Tigers their first national college football championship in 35 years.

But within the world of American college football, it’s undeniable that the University of Alabama’s football program—under head coach Nick Saban—is a powerhouse.

So despite the fact that Crimson Tide fans everywhere are in a state of mourning this week, there’s an interesting lesson to be learned from how Alabama has adapted its approach to the game of football during the past five years. It’s a lesson in sensing and responding to the forces of change, and it’s about having the ability to improve continually—even when, overall, you’re still winning most of the time.

I won’t belabor the details of what Saban noticed or what he changed in his approach toward the game—those points are well-documented by ESPN Senior Staff Writer Chris Low. Instead, here are few excerpts from Low’s observations about Saban and how they contain lessons about agility for the rest of us:

“‘I might not like it, but it ain't the way ball is now,’ Saban said of the blueprint that won the first three of his four national championships at Alabama. ‘It's unbelievable how much the game has changed, and it's really hard to coach defense now. But hey, it's on me—regardless of the way I think football should be played—if I don't change with it.’”

Saban readily accepts the fact that we typically have little to no control over the external realities within which we must operate. Good strategy is about having an approach that corresponds with external reality, not having wishful thinking about what the world should be like.

“But while Saban might be old school and might have strong convictions about the direction of the game, the one thing he's not is stubborn. He's smart enough to know that nothing stays the same, especially when you're in the business of chasing championships.”

I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to work frequently with some extraordinarily smart executives, researchers and students. But smart doesn’t always equal agile. Sometimes, people can fall too much in love with their own beliefs about what creates success or what should be done that they fail to recognize that the game has changed around them. And if they finally realize that they must change, it’s often too late for it to really make a difference. Being a little bit suspicious of your success is a good thing.

“‘It just points out how [Saban] is always looking at everything, how to find a better way to do things,’ [former Alabama offensive coordinator Lane] Kiffin said. ‘In the offseason, he's flying us to different places to go learn things and bringing in coaches all the time, which again, that's unusual, because someone like him ... why does he want to learn from someone else? He's the best coach in college football, but that's why he continues to be the best coach.’”

Staying at the top of your game—either as an individual contributor, a middle manager or a senior executive—demands that you (a) have a growth mindset toward your own knowledge and skills and (b) intentionally immerse yourself in useful information. Complacency and comfort are dangerous because they lead to what Robert Quinn, in his book Building the Bridge as You Walk On It, called “slow death.” Or, similarly, it can lead to what Jim Collins, in his book How The Mighty Fall, called “hubris born of success.”

Either way, being agile—as an organization, team, leader, or in virtually any other capacity—demands that you stay on guard. And Saban’s approach with The Crimson Tide is a good reminder of what that “looks like.” It suggests a few good bits of advice, including:

  • Don’t change just for change’s sake, but be wary of the status quo.
  • Continually watch for subtle forces of change that affect how you win.
  • Be prepared to let go of what used to work and adopt new strategies.
  • Learn from other people and help your team do the same.

Adopting these habits may not result in you being the highest paid state employee in Alabama. But these routines will help you deal with the change around you much faster and better than those who don’t.

And even if you never win a national championship in anything, I’d wager that being nimble makes the uncertainty of the future a bit less scary and bit more fun.

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About Ben Baran

Ben Baran, Ph.D., is probably one of the few people in the world who is equally comfortable in a university classroom, a corporate boardroom and in full body armor carrying a U.S. government-issued M4 assault rifle. Visit: