Second & Short: The ‘Quick Win’ Project

Second & Short: The ‘Quick Win’ Project

As football fans, there are moments in the game that set off fireworks of euphoria inside us. The opening kickoff is returned for a touchdown. Our kicker boots a game-winner as time expires. A linebacker lays a hit so vicious that small tremors are felt across the state. In short, it’s a game of peaks and valleys even for the most casual observer. But there’s a special little moment near and dear to my heart, my guilty pleasure, that brings me enormous joy even when watching the sad, sad Miami Dolphins of my hometown: second and short1.

It’s hard to imagine a pre-snap scenario that’s more rewarding than second and short, and the possibilities are endless: you can run play action, throw a bomb, infuse a little trickery, run an unexpected pitch sweep to the weak side – I’m getting excited just typing it. When the objective of the game is to move the ball down the field, second and short is a wonderful opportunity to get a big gain without totally compromising first-down potential on the next play. In simple terms, it’s a low-risk, high-upside play2.

Huddle Up

In the land of business consulting, some of our most effective moments come with the recommendation of a “quick win”3 project. Organizations, depending on business needs and competitive influences, typically have several large-scale initiatives in flux, and it’s nearly impossible for a CEO to have his or her hands on all of them. So, it is paramount to be able to deliver incremental value and show momentum along the way.

Consider two examples, with differing results regarding quick win opportunities:

Scenario 1:  A large B2B manufacturer and distributor has grown through acquisition and now has four legacy accounting systems, redundant staff across the US and dozens of manual processes in the sales organization, back office, and shop floor. Shareholders express a financial imperative to consolidate onto a single, lean platform as quickly as possible. The company’s internal project management team is tasked with four major work streams: ERP, CRM, analytics, and infrastructure. They spin up project plans for each track and are off to the races, with the overarching goal of being “live” on their new systems in 24 months. The project plans have a high degree of detail, realistic timelines and committed teams, but are missing one crucial element: cross-functional, critical path planning.

Scenario 2:  A major fashion retailer is midway through a business intelligence (BI) transformational project. The VP of Analytics realizes the project management approach her team has taken may work well for other internal projects and urges the COO to develop a technology implementation playbook. The COO agrees and assembles a small team in-house to develop a light prototype of the tool. Six months later, the e-commerce team pilots the playbook during a website renovation and has instant success with the new methodology. Over time, the playbook becomes a core asset for the company, and the COO lands on the cover of Time magazine.


The retailer in Scenario 2 succeeded largely due to the simplicity in its approach, ultimately thriving on a well-executed quick win (thanks to great communication). What happened to Scenario 1?

Although the manufacturer was wise to break the work up, a lot was left out of the planning effort. For example, the ERP implementation was scoped out to last up to 24 months, but that doesn’t mean the data being collected by the business couldn’t be leveraged until that 24-month mark. In practice, they could have converted data for those two years post-implementation, and in the meantime, leveraged it for a “light” CRM rollout – a quick win. During all this, a quick win for the infrastructure team would be to mitigate any risks to the business. Perhaps moving to an all-cloud environment would have put too much strain on the other three work streams; maybe the new ERP system required on-premise data centers.

By keeping these work streams siloed, with no cross-pollination (i.e., opportunities for finding quick wins), the company missed out on some very obvious-in-hindsight details of their immense consolidation project. They threw a few Hail Marys, gained no yardage and ultimately had to punt.

Dancing in the End Zone

Like a lot of good things, the quick win is easier said than done. Identifying a new transformation project is a good start, but you need smart play calling – performing ROI analysis, vetting initiatives through steering committees, establishing buy-in across the organization, etc. – to realize the potential of that project. Specifically, the quick win project should not receive special treatment. It must go through board approval protocols, have tangible execution plans and be driven by stakeholders who are flexible enough to pivot when the landscape shifts and humble enough to abandon projects if that high upside disappears.

Low risk, high reward is a great starting point for identifying high priority projects, but shouldn’t be overly romanticized: a true win requires execution. Move the ball down the field – no need to call a Hail Mary on every down.

¹ For non-football fans, “second and short” means the team with the ball did well on the previous play, and now only has to advance the ball a couple of yards in three plays. Essentially, it gives them a chance to go for a big gain without badly compromising their chances of keeping possession of the ball. Think of it like playing black-jack, but without a penalty for hitting over 21.
² I usually cover my face after a 4-yard loss. And yet, still look forward to the next one.
³ Yes, it might sound a bit cliché, but better than “low-hanging fruit”.

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Chicago, IL 60606
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