Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Game 3 Employees

This morning I was listening to Colin Cowherd on ESPN Radio talk about the Los Angeles Lakers’ win in Game 3 of the play-offs against the Celtics.  The Lakers, Cowherd said, won Game 3 but--big deal. The Lakers were supposed to win Game 3, he added. Teams that lose the first two games in a basketball play-off series almost always go home and win Game 3. It’s practically a given. And it doesn’t mean a thing.  "Game 3,” Cowherd said, “is Fool's Gold.”

Statistically, the Lakers have about a 15% chance of becoming World Champions. That’s the history of NBA teams after falling behind in the first two games. So, while miracles do sometimes happen in sports, the Lakers are effectively cooked.  Cowherd ended by saying that, after the first two wins by the Celtics, this series was established.

It got me to thinking about some of the “Game 3” events that occur in our lives.

Suppose you are on a diet, trying to lose weight, but find yourself accidentally in the drive-thru of Burger King at lunchtime. And, being starved, you order a Whopper with cheese, an onion ring, and a Diet Coke.  The Diet Coke is essentially a “Game 3” event. It’s good of you to do, but it doesn’t matter. You might as well have gone with the chocolate shake, because once you’d ordered the Whopper and onion rings, your lunch was established.

Suppose you have a bad experience with an on-line merchant and launch a complaint. In return you get a form email and no other response.  Finally, after repeated calls you get through to customer service, which apologizes and offers you a credit against future purchases.  That’s a “Game 3 event.” By the time you have a bad experience with the original service, and a second bad experience trying to correct the first, it doesn’t much matter what customer service does.  That merchant is established.

I’ve often thought that one of the toughest things in business is to manage the “Game 3 Employee.” That’s the person capable of delivering superior work--and who does so for stretches at a time--but habitually falls off (for whatever reason) to perform at an unacceptable level.

You try to correct through conversation, compensation, review, or even warning. And, inevitably, after one of these sessions, good performance returns.  But, in 85% of the cases, this is a Game 3 event. It’s fool’s gold. Because, with time, the Game 3 Employee inevitably falls off the wagon again.  You can root and you can hope, but the percentages are entirely and inevitably against you. Two cycles of this kind of activity and this employee is established.

Of course, you can always try again. And a lot of us do.  But we can also order the Diet Coke with the Whopper.  Some of us do that, too.