Rule Change

The NFL kicks off this week. How the league handles a major rule change may be as fascinating as the actual games.

The 2018 National Football League season kicks off this week, and some officials, coaches, and players still aren’t sure what constitutes a legal tackle. New rules established in the off-season around that most basic of football functions have created more confusion than clarity, with penalty flags littering the field during the pre-season, slowing the pace of the game, altering the outcome, and possibly contributing to injuries (which is what the new rules were meant to avoid).

“The key to any rule change,” says Jed Hughes, vice chairman and global head of Korn Ferry’s Sports practice, “is to maintain consistency and reinforcement to change behavior.” Part of the reason for all the pre-season penalty flags, for instance, was because referees policed the new rules tightly at first to help players adjust before the real season starts—and games begin to count.

Whether in the NFL or the corporate world, communicating a new rule, strategy, policy, management change, or the like is no different than rolling out a new product or service. It requires a coordinated approach and a tailored message for each stakeholder group and platform. The NFL’s new tackling rules, for instance, originated with the league’s competition committee. From there, league officials communicated the new policy to officials, teams, and players to drive alignment.

Richard Marshall, global managing director of Korn Ferry’s Corporate Affairs practice, advises leaders who need to communicate information across the organization to develop playbooks (pun intended) and talking points for front line managers to use with their respective audiences. “Understand who all of your audiences are and plan your timing and sequencing of the information rollout accordingly,” says Marshall. For a global corporation, for example, the audience includes but is not limited to employees, vendors, consumers, investors, government agencies, and media outlets.

 Marshall also suggests leaders communicate from the inside out as opposed to the outside in. Put another way, inform and educate employees on any new changes first so they can help communicate it outward to other stakeholders. “Telling the media or external audiences first may seem like an efficient way to get information out, but it can also create confusion if all of the internal stakeholders aren’t aligned, have context around the decision, or made aware of the timing,” says Marshall.

Case in point: the NFL’s new national anthem policy. Given the negative attention surrounding player protests during the anthem, clearly articulating the league’s position ranked as a major priority this off-season. But when the new official policy came out, the narrative quickly came under the control of fans, media, and players on social media.