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Is Your Organization Running the Philly Special? | HR Lessons from Football Trick Plays

If you are from the Philadelphia area or an Eagles fan, you know what the Philly Special is already. For those of you who missed Super Bowl LII, let me fill you in on what some have called the greatest play in Super Bowl history. The Philly Special was a trick play where Eagles quarterback Nick Foles distracted the Patriot defensive line with his audible while running back, Corey Clement, took the snap (normally the QB's job), then pitched the ball to tight end, Trey Burton, who then threw the ball (normally the QB's job) to the QB, Nick Foles, who made the catch (normally the wide receiver or tight end's job) for a touchdown!

This type of trick play has been run in football games of all levels for many years. (Check out this article for dozens of examples of this type of play in high school, college and pro football.) In fact, Nick Foles ran a similar play as quarterback for his high school team. And if you were watching the monumental Brown’s win last Thursday over the Jets (not exactly a Super Bowl victory, but might as well have been, as the Browns had not won a game since December of 2015) the Brown’s ran the same play just to the left for a two-point conversion attempt from wide receiver, Jarvis Landry to rookie quarterback, Baker Mayfield. So what makes the Philly Special so special, and why should you be thinking about running this type of play in your own organization?

The HR Lesson, I believe, is one of a mental model or mindset shift. Re-framing how we think about the talent we have on the field or in our organization, and where the most value lies in their performance. We assume that a quarterback’s value lies in his ability to throw the ball accurately. Rarely do we allow ourselves to consider the value that player may bring to another position on the field. In this case, the Eagles had to think differently about the players' positions to outsmart (or trick) the defense of the other team.

When is the last time you considered shifting one of your employees to a new role within the organization? I don’t simply mean moving them up or around within a department; I mean moving them to an entirely different department or function. Have you ever considered that your top marketing manager might bring fresh ideas and perspective to your HR recruiting team? Have you ever considered that your head of operations might bring insights to the finance team that have never been explored? I think the reason shifting talent around the organization in this way is so rarely done is a mindset of loss. We think, "without my quarterback throwing the ball, I’m losing the most skilled player at that position." Or, "if I move my top marketing manager to the HR department, what will happen to the marketing team?" This mindset of the skill we will lose in one department or position keeps us from moving talent on the field.

One of my favorite management scholars, Jeffrey Pfeffer, Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford University, has discussed the importance of “changing mental models” as being one of “HR's most important tasks." In this article, Pfeffer explains that “in order to do different things… companies and their people actually must begin to think differently. That’s why mental models affect organizational performance and why they are a high leverage place for HR to focus its organizational interventions.” Doug Pederson, Head Coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, allowed a mindset shift in himself, his coaching staff and his players, to think about the team differently than just the assigned player positions on the field. By doing so, he led a mental model shift that created a competitive advantage and won the Eagles their first Super Bowl. Pfeffer argued that “intervening to affect mental models may be one of the more efficient ways of making the changes that HR so often advocates to build a high-performing culture… because what we do comes from what and how we think, intervening to uncover and affect mental models may be the most important and high-leverage activity HR can perform.”

So, how about that Philly Special? How might you run the Philly Special in your organization? What mindset is holding you and your organizational talent in the same formation? How can you change that mental model?


Bethany J. Adams, MA, SHRM-SCP is an Associate Director in the Graduate HRD Program at Villanova University. Learn more about her here!

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