NFL Situation Spotlight #109 – Offensive Holding Penalties (OHP)

Those of you that have had a chance to read some of my past articles may have come across a write-up discussing the predictive power behind Play-book Execution Penalties, which are flags thrown when plays break-down, usually on offense. Penalty calls that fall into this category include infractions such as: Intentional Grounding, Ineligible Receivers, Illegal Shifts and Motions, Too Many Men on the Field, and so on.

PBEP’s are not the only measure of team penalties that have been shown to be a profitable tool for spread handicapping: Offensive Holding calls are also the basis for a situation that has produced big profits over the past 7 years– a situation which has been highly effective even with only one Primary condition involved.

The condition I am speaking about is simple, and involves looking at teams that currently have a higher per-game average for Offensive Holding Penalties Against (OHPA) than their current opponent.

As an example, a team that has played 4 games and been flagged 9 times for Offensive Holding during this stretch, would have an OHPA of 2.25 (9 / 4) and would therefore be subject to this situations logic when facing an opponent with an OHPA average of 2.24 or less.

As you might expect, teams with a higher OHPA have not been a good wager over the past 7 seasons. You might be surprised; however, at just how badly they have fared.

Since 2001, teams with a higher OHPA have been a brutal 518-602 (46.3%) ATS when playing between Week 4 and 15, creating a profit of $3,220.00 at 10/11 odds with $110.00 wagers against the team in question. Not bad for a relatively simple situation with 1 Primary condition (OHPA > OP OHPA) and a ‘Secondary’ stipulation (i.e., ‘tightener’) excluding games very early, and very late in the season.

If there is one thing I have learned through the process of handicapping hundreds of NFL games over the past decade-or-so and studying countless trends during this same time period, it’s that, the stats that are ‘off the beaten track’ are usually the ones that produce the most profitable ‘stand-alone’ trends’–meaning, those that are based one single condition or at least a minimal amount of conditions.

You will be hard-pressed to find another situation based on the more common measurements of team skill, such as rushing and passing stats, that could produce a similar result of +/- 85 wins ATS over a 1000-1100 game stretch, especially when it involves only a single ‘building block’, or, ‘Primary’ condition.

The reason for this is actually fairly simple: Most of us know that Vegas sets the NFL line based predominantly on public perception of team strength. This is a point which even most novice handicappers are aware of these days. Sportsbooks get their 10% ‘Vig’ regardless of who wins and losses and it’s always been in their best interest to set lines that produce balanced action which helps to minimize their immediate risk and maximize long-term profits.

With the knowledge that the point spread is more a product of public sentiment, than actual team skill levels in many cases, it becomes fairly safe to assume that the statistics that help to shape public opinion will probably be less effective at handicapping the spread than other, equally effective stats that perhaps ‘fly-below the radar’ of the vast majority of handicappers out there. Those who follow the stock market will be familiar with this concept, which is known as the efficient market theory.

As an example: if everyone made their wagers based solely on season-to-date points differential for each team, Vegas would correct their lines for this fact and using a method of choosing teams based on points scored alone, would ultimately yield a fat 0 dollars profit, if not a loss, over the long-haul.

This example is an over-simplification of course, and bettors will typically take many more things into consideration when making wagers. Having said that, there are certain stats and variables that are used more often-than-not by the average handicapper, week in and week out.

With-out a doubt, rushing and passing stats are the measures of choice for most novice-to-intermediate handicappers along with other obvious ones, such as, points scored and allowed; ‘power’ numbers; injury report data and recent head-to-head results. Most people base their wagering decisions on these kinds of stats because they are both easy to find and easy to understand.

As with the financial markets; however, following the ‘herd’ is more likely to lead you (and your bankroll) over the side of a cliff, rather than to the ‘pot of gold’, and the same rules apply when handicapping the sports-betting market.

This is not to say that basic statistics which focus on such things as the efficiency of a team’s rushing and passing game are to be ignored. On the contrary, I use these fundamental measurements (expressed as yards-per-play differentials) as part of a number of my successful situations. But, a number of other conditions usually need to be added in order to make them truly effective in predicting spread winners.

Getting back to penalties for a moment–beyond the basic penalty yardage totals shown for each team in the final boxscore, the specific types and frequency of certain penalties that teams take are essentially ignored by 99.5% of handicappers, and for the reasons discussed above, these key stats will also not factor too much into the line as a result.

Penalty calls are not the only facet of NFL team play that suffers from a lack of attention, despite their ability to reveal profitable situations versus the spread.

There happens to be quite a few other statistical gems that also fall into the ‘overlooked’ category and one such area concerns special teams play and more specifically, the king of this category–KRYF, which stands for Kick-off Return Yardage (Average) For.

KRYF is a critical stat that is on my ‘shortlist’ of numbers that no good NFL handicapper should be with-out.

It acts as a barometer of overall special teams strength on the most important special teams play of all: the Kick-off return.

Kick-offs are a critical event because of their ability to switch a games momentum in a heart-beat and they provide an opportunity for a team to quickly gobble up crucial yardage that can leave them with decent field position, which is key to any chance of a victory, whether it be SU or ATS.

Nothing deflates a team that just finished putting points on the board more, than an opponent who runs back the ensuing kick-off for 40 yards and we all know the affect that a player like Chicago’s kick-return specialist, Devin Hester, can have on a game’s outcome in the blink of an eye.

The league average for KRYF is usually around 22 yards-per-return. Good teams will find themselves with an average near 25 while lousy return teams will be down near 19 yards-per-return.

KYRF is a stat that I use a lot, and it just happens to be the basis for one of the 2 remaining Primary conditions yet to be discussed. Including the original one involving OHPA, this powerful ‘trifecta’ of negative factors spells doom for the team unlucky enough to meet all of the criteria involved.

Here is how KRYF factors into things: I have found that teams that have a higher OHPA as well as a lower KRYF than their current opponent, have been a dismal 245-332 (42.5%) ATS since 2001, which almost doubles the profit produced from looking at OHPA alone, to $6250.00.

As with OHPA, it makes sense that teams at a disadvantage with regards to KRYF are a poor bet against the spread. The surprise here, once again, is just how profitable it has been historically, when betting against this team based on these 2 simple factors alone.

Now, we are not done quite yet. The final significant stipulation that I like to add also involves special teams, in this case– a comparison of Gross Punt Yardage and Net Punt Yardage concerning the current opponent of the team in question is included.

Subtracting Net Punt Yardage (the yardage achieved by a punt after the return is factored in along with any penalties against the punting team) from Gross Punt Yards (the distance a punt actually traveled from where the ball was snapped) is an excellent way to look at the ability of a team to: A) Execute a punt properly, and B) efficiently cover the ensuing return.

Teams with a poor punt coverage unit or that take a higher-than-average number of penalties during the punt itself; will see a wider gap between their GPYF and NPYF. Teams that have a below-average punter will also have a lower NPYF by extension, as shorter punts do carry a higher risk of big returns if coverage personnel do not have enough time to get into proper position.

The average gap between a team’s GPYF and their NPYF happens to be 6 yards.
By excluding opponents that have a GPYF at least 7 yards higher than their NPYF, we effectively remove opponents that have either poor coverage skills on punts, or a weak punter. Ultimately, this is yet another blow against the team already stinging from the other factors previously discussed.

In summary then: Teams that have a higher per-game average for Offensive Holding Penalties Against (OHPA) along with a lower per-game average for Kick-off Return Yardage For (KRYF)–both in relation to their current opponent–are 142-244 (36.8%) ATS since 2001, so long as this opponent’s Gross Punt Yardage figure is no more than 7 yards bigger than their Net Punt Yardage per-game average.

Based on these 3 Primary conditions (along with the earlier tightener that confines things to Week 4 through 15), we have a trend that has been a consistent winner since ’01 and has produced a profit of $8,780.00 at 10/11 odds during this time period.

Rounding things out, are 2 final limitations, one of which excludes teams who have faced a tough schedule season-to-date (SOS > 0.600) while the other excludes underdogs of >= 7 points. With the addition of these final 2 conditions, the record is reduced to 89-190 (31.9%) ATS–a killer situation that has been a deadly predictor of results ATS, 7 years running.

A brief look at the stats below will show that this is a very balanced trend that has played on every single team in the league, aside from one. And, it is split fairly evenly between favs and dogs as well as home and away teams.

Here are all the details.

(Notes: ASMR stands for Average Spread Margin Rating. A positive rating indicates a trend that is stronger than average versus the line, negative–weaker than average. TDIS% is the percentage of teams in the league that have been involved in this situation at one time or another. WT% is the percentage of teams that are .500 or better and SPR is the average spread for teams in this situation. For more details, please consult Page 13 of my 2007 NFL Game Sheets Guide.)

Situational Trend #109 Summary

Primary Conditions (Building Blocks)
1) Offensive Holding Penalty Average Against (OHPA) > Opponent.
2) Kick-off Return Yardage Average For (KRYF) Secondary Conditions (Tighteners)
1) Game is between Week 4 and 15.
2) Team is not an Underdog of >=7 Points.
3) Strength of Schedule (SOS), season-to-date, is Situation Stats
ASMR: -0.5
Home%: 57.4
Dog%: 44.9
TDIS%: 96.9
WT%: 54.7
SPR: -1.0
Top Teams: TB(18); BUF(16); MIN(16); MIA(15)

Situation Record
Overall (Since ’01): 89-190 ATS
2007 Season: 10-26 ATS
2006 Season: 9-19 ATS
2005 Season: 11-32 ATS
2004 Season: 17-32 ATS

Last 3 Results. Pick in Brackets.
2007 WK15–TEN 26 KC 17 (TEN -3.5) W
2007 WK15–JAC 29 PIT 22 (JAC +3.5) W
2007 WK15–CLE 8 BUF 0 (CLE -6) W

Ocean’s Reach Resort Ushers in Green Lodging on Sanibel and Captiva Islands

Ocean’s Reach Condominiums is a vacation resort tucked away on secluded stretch of gulf front coastline on Sanibel Island. For over three decades, visitors to Ocean’s Reach have been admiring the Gulf of Mexico from their oceanfront balconies, wading in a swimming pool with a view unrivaled on Sanibel Island, and walking the fabled “nineteen steps” it takes to reach the shell-strewn beach. And now, thanks to the eco-conscious and diligent staff of Ocean’s Reach Resort, they can do it all with a clear environmental conscience. Ocean’s Reach is the first property to attain Green Lodging designation on Sanibel and Captiva Islands.

Regardless of where it begins, the last leg of any trip to Ocean’s Reach starts on the Sanibel Causeway. After several years of the noise and debris of major construction project, a larger toll building and the new three-part causeway bridge to Sanibel were finally completed in the summer of 2007.

The wife and I drive past the tollbooth and begin the steep ascent of the new high-span bridge. The original drawbridge is gone, and this sleek, precipitous beauty now stands in its place. The tallest bridge in Lee County. Anticipation builds, and my view is obstructed as I drive up its sheer, concrete face. My temporary blindness is rewarded as I reach the summit and a tropical fantasy land reveals itself with all the magnificence and grandeur nature can muster. Here is a magical place. Here is where the gentle curve of Sanibel stretches off into the distance. Here is where the waters of the Caloosahatchee River and Pine Island Sound merge with the salty tides of the Gulf of Mexico. Here is where bright Florida sunlight kisses the treetops on Fisherman Key and Picnic Island. Here is where the iron skeleton of Sanibel Island Light first comes into view. Here is where windsurfers challenge waves, pleasure boats drift aimlessly, and fishermen bait their hooks. Once I reach the top of that first bridge, I leave the whole world behind me, and immerse myself into the paradise that is Sanibel Island.

Improved landscaping graces the man-made causeway islands. Palm trees provide intermittent shade. A recreational vehicle is parked on the shoreline with its awning fully extended. Two vacationers doze in beach chairs beneath. A great blue heron stands sentry nearby.

A brown pelican races our car across the final bridge span, finally banking to the right and splashing in a sloppy dive into the water below.

Before long I’m on Periwinkle Way. The Australian pine canopy is gone, ripped out by Hurricane Charley. Nature always returns to a clean slate, given time. It steers us in the right direction, sometimes nudging, sometimes punching. Nature’s voice is always there, all we have to do is listen.

Sanibel’s done a good job listening on Periwinkle way. The invasive exotics were replaced with native species as a result of the Periwinkle Corridor Vegetation Restoration Project. Over three-thousand native trees were planted along with native under-story vegetation. Bald Cypress. Sabal Palm. Gumbo Limbo. Live Oak. Green Buttonwood. Strangler Fig. Seagrape. All drought resistant. All needing no fertilizer. All hardy enough to stand up to hurricane force winds. Native plants are good for conservation. Native plants are good for the environment. Nature loves native plants.

A couple turns later and the traffic is far behind me. I make a final turn onto quiet Camino Del Mar. At the far end of the road stands a series of four connected buildings, like a fortress on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico…Ocean’s Reach.

I pull my car into the covered parking area near the shuffleboard court and the “finest hard surface tennis court on Sanibel Island”. I walk past a well-maintained grilling and picnic grove on my way to check in.

The main office is abuzz with energy and enthusiasm as members of the staff review Green Lodging checklists and make last minute preparations for the Green Lodging On-Site Assessment about to occur.

I ask Ocean’s Reach manager, Andy Boyle, what the Green Lodging Designation process consists of.

“We put the formal process in motion about six months ago by filling out paperwork and making a request to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to be admitted to the program. Next we had to do a self-assessment to see where we stood in relation to their requirements. We had to institute a program of using all green-certified cleaning products, recycled paper goods, and environmentally friendly office products. We had to switch to all energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs. We reduced our trash pickups and increased our recycling pickups. We developed a program to educate our guests on what we’re trying to do through written notices, email, and on our website. We needed to xeriscape our flowerbeds and ornamental areas for water conservation. We added Energy Star equipment and low flow shower heads and toilets. We had to educate our entire staff on green practices and keep them informed on a regular basis. We had to work with our vendors and ask for their help. Everything needs to be documented. It’s a lot of work, but the end result is worth it. We want Ocean’s Reach to be an eco-friendly lodging destination people can feel good about staying at.”

Construction began on Ocean’s Reach in 1973, one year before Sanibel Island incorporated as a city in an effort to fight back against over development. The developer and builder was Robert Hollopeter from Lima, Ohio. Sanibel then was not like the Sanibel of now. Modern and luxurious amenities were not standard fare. Most units were first sold without dishwashers or phone lines. Party lines were all that were available in those days. Early occupants of Ocean’s Reach recall a payphone hung on a shed between two of the buildings where everyone would line up to make calls. They recall beach erosion so significant that a city council member recommended moving the Ocean’s Reach gulf-front swimming pool behind the building so it wouldn’t get destroyed by a hurricane.

The pool never moved. The beach is now three times as wide as it was back then. I guess predicting nature will always be an imperfect science.

Lots of things changed over the years. But the changes still reverberating today at Ocean’s Reach came as a result of extreme weather. In August and September of 2004 the one-two punch of Hurricanes Charley and Frances battered the Ocean’s Reach complex. The water damage sustained was so extreme it necessitated all 64 condominium units at Ocean’s Reach to be stripped and gutted. Appliances, furniture, cabinetry, and dry wall were all removed and scrapped. All that remained were the cement block walls. The restoration took sixteen months. It was almost a complete rebuild of the property.

Although the emotional and financial costs of the hurricanes were dear to Ocean’s Reach owners, many of them credit the horrible storms with breathing new life into what was becoming an aging vacation resort. All of the interiors have been restored to mint condition. The condominium units have been modernized and redecorated. New appliances, new furniture, and new paint all surrounded by the same old Sanibel charm.

For Dru Anne Doyle, a member of the management team at Ocean’s Reach, the damage from Hurricane Charley was a turning point.

“Even though the major rebuild from Hurricane Charley was finished in 16 months, in some ways that was just the beginning, and the momentum continues to push us even now. We’re continuing to develop a better experience for our owners and guests. We’re continuing to reduce our ecological footprint and the impact our vacation resort has on the local environment. The disaster wrought by Hurricane Charley actually allowed us to make a series of important decisions, decisions that put us on the path towards our successful renovations, decisions that permitted us to make Ocean’s Reach a shining green example of what’s possible for the future of ecotourism on Sanibel and Captiva Islands. Here at Ocean’s Reach, we strive to be hospitable hosts helping to create unforgettable vacation memories for our guests; and we’re also proud to be conscientious stewards of the natural resources and beauty surrounding our buildings.”

Nature’s voice urges again. Ocean’s Reach has done a good job listening.

The condominium I check into is a far cry from the poorly equipped units of yesteryear. The first impression upon entering the unit is one of newness. Sparkling appliances. A completely equipped kitchen. A laundry area with a full sized washer and dryer. Clean paint on the walls. Fresh carpet. High-speed wireless internet. A CD player stereo. Flat screen televisions with DVD players in every room. I would never have guessed this place was built over thirty years ago. There is a phone, but who needs it. Imagine what all those guests waiting in humid lines at the legendary pay phone would have given for the cell phone world we live in today. Then again, they may not have called as frequently, but I bet their calls were more interesting. Technology is often a trade-off.

The king sized bed in the master bedroom is comfortable and has a world class view. Another sliding glass door opens out to the screened lanai.

The feature we’re most enamored of is the screened lanai overlooking the Sanibel shoreline. The sliding glass doors broadcast images of beach-front utopia in high definition reality. Suncapped waves glisten. Children run in high-kneed sprints through the shallow water. Sailboats glide across the horizon, harnessing clean energy. A slow parade of beach-walkers follow the path of water meeting land. In the distance, cumulonimbus clouds drop dark, hulking shadows on the ocean surface, ghostly leviathans swimming beneath bright, tropic waters. A view like this may cost you more than your monthly cable bill, but it’s infinitely more interesting to watch.

The wife and I change into swimming attire, grab the loud-colored body boards from our condo, and run out to the beach. Minutes later we’re splashing and carousing in the salty surf like the children we wish we were more often, but aren’t. The ocean temperature is in the low eighties. The air temperature is in the low nineties. An osprey makes its awe-inspiring dive into the deeper water and emerges with a writhing fish clutched in his talons. He twists the fish until it’s parallel with his body, to cut down on wind resistance, and then beats his wings and heads for the nest.

A little later on, we cook a quick lunch in the condo and unwind on the lanai as the afternoon crawls towards evening. One at a time, the tribes of beach dwellers disassemble their umbrellas and chairs, abandon their encampments, and head towards leisurely island dinners. Once the beach has cleared from the suntan and water recreation set, we take off our shoes and head outside.

The sun hangs low in the sky as the beachcombers, kitefliers, sunset watchers, and romantics report for duty among the omnipresent shell gatherers and fishermen. Couples and friends sit in beach chairs, drinking beers and glasses of wine while facing one of the natural phenomena. The sun falls in one direction. The solstice moon rises in the other. Between them both is the ebb and flow of a full-moon tide.

We walk along the coast, listening to the breaking waves seethe and hiss as they pound against the shore. The remnants of daytime activities litter the beach. Sandcastles. Seaweed mosaics. Holes dug in the sand. Subconscious art, structures derived from the fertile imaginations of children and guided by their primal instincts. Footprints. Umbrella holes. Stray towels and swimming goggles. Messages and love letters scribbled into the sand. All changing with the angle of the sun, all meeting the long shadows of dusky splendor.

The messages carved onto the beach start out playful enough. One says “Gulf of Mexico”. Another says, “Live Clam Farm – 49 cents each”. It has some arrows pointing towards a bed of pastel coquina clams. As each advancing wave exposes them, they wiggle and dig themselves back into the protective sand.

The further we walk, the more the sand graffiti begins to take on personal significance. One reads, “Happy to be here!!!”. The most poignant message written into the sand says: “STOP”. For some reason, this one word of shoreline literature resonates within me. I follow the instructions being given to me by the beach, and stand still for a few minutes. I stop pushing ahead and think on what’s important in my life. The present, this ever-fleeting moment we’re always within and so rarely take the time to appreciate. I invite my wife to STOP with me. We embrace each other on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. We take it all in. Listening to the white noise song of the ocean. Smelling the scent of salty, moist sand. Seeing the sunlight and moonlight touching the water simultaneously. And feeling the touch of the coastal breeze and each other. Completely in the moment and outside of time.

The clouds on the skyline look like a range of snow-peaked mountains, stubborn in the summer heat. The highrise buildings of Bonita Springs and Naples shimmer along the vanishing point of the horizon like a heat mirage. Young vacationers pose for Facebook photos and the camera flashes on the beach mirror the sporadic rhythm of the heat lightning overhead. A thin layer of water on the low tide sand reflects the final vestiges of red light bleeding from where the landscape meets the sky.

In the end, most all light is extinguished for the sake of nesting loggerhead sea turtles and the future of their species. All that remains is the path of moonlight on the waves, the signpost nature uses to lead the turtle hatchlings back to their oceanic home.

The only people still on the beach are the ardent shell collectors with flashlights and a few men fishing in the dark The laid back disposition of Sanibel allows them to fully and fanatically embrace their passions. I meditate on their bliss as I drift off to sleep.

The ominous rumble of morning thunder wakes me the next morning. The early rain passes just in time for me to catch the sunrise from the beach.

On the way to the shoreline, I get sidetracked for a quick dip in the Gulf-front swimming pool. There’s no one else around. The warm air, pre-dawn haze, and mixture of whispy and threatening clouds overhead grant a dreamlike quality to the entire experience. Everything is covered in a thin layer of moisture that begins to glint and sparkle as the first rays of sun break from behind the clouds.

I jump out of the pool and run down to an empty beach to see what the storm and the full moon tide has brought in. A snowy egret basks in the rising sun. A white ibis pushes its curved orange beak into the wet sand digging for crustaceans.

On my short walk I’m able to gather several lightning whelks, a few Florida fighting conchs, a single alphabet cone, and a handful of the more prevalent, but still aesthetic, scallop shells. I also find one of the largest intact sand dollars I’ve ever seen, but it’s still alive, so I have to throw it back.

Only a few of the previous day’s sand castles have made it through the night, and those look battered and bruised. The holes have been filled. The shells and seaweed scattered. All the messages have been erased from the sand. The whim of the ocean has wiped the slate clean, the way it always does again.

By the time I’m heading back to the condo, the early risers are out on the beach, mostly joggers, Sanibel stoopers, and fishermen. It’s nice to have company, but I cherish the time I shared alone with the beach this morning.

After the sunrise excitement, I rejoin my wife in the condo, and we opt for a lazy morning doing nothing. Outside the sliding glass doors, we watch families lugging their umbrellas, chairs, coolers, and toys back down to the ocean’s edge. Patient mothers smear white sunblock on the backs of anxious children itching to run the wide expanse of open beach and tumble in the briny sea spray. Not far from shore, a pod of dolphins surface, exposing their dorsal fins to the sunlight and the world. No one on the beach even notices.

Flicking through the channels, looking for a newscast, I come across a Travel Channel show titled, “Best Florida Beaches”. I happen to arrive at the channel just as they’re introducing number nine, Sanibel Island. My wife and I look at each other in shock. What are the chances? I look at the television screen. I look out the window. I look at the television screen again. I look out the window again. I turn off the television screen, and take off my shoes to go back outside.

I don’t care what number they rate Sanibel Island…I’m just happy to be here now.

The lodging industry is one of Florida’s largest commercial sectors. In 2005, according to research conducted by VISIT FLORIDA┬«, 83.6 million people visited Florida with about 50 percent of those staying in a hotel, motel or bed & breakfast. With this many visitors, the lodging industry can have a significant and positive impact on Florida’s natural resources. You can do your part by staying at a Designated Green Lodging Property during your next vacation. If your favorite lodging establishment is not a Designated Green Lodging destination, ask them why not.

Leading With The Right Questions

Have you ever noticed how many questions you ask in a typical day? Even the simplest decision can follow from dozens of questions? Most we ask and answer without even thinking about it? They reside just under our awareness in almost everything we do. Sometimes we don’t know what question to ask because we don’t know what we don’t know. Questions lead to answers and answers to outcomes.

So, if you want to improve your results, start with the questions you are asking. It doesn’t matter whether you are solving an individual problem, making a decision, leading a project team or executing on strategy, the outcomes that you see in front of you today answer the questions you have already asked. Change the questions and you begin to change the result.

Leading with the right questions requires a willingness to make your real questions transparent and then to follow the markers that enable you to refine and adjust them until they land the right outcome. Let’s look at the way questions affected the growth of this start-up company scenario.

In four years, Ben had taken his company from 2 people working at a kitchen table to 400 people with 25%+ profits. His business model had created explosive growth and was quickly recognized and emulated by others. No surprise here. Ben assumed that he could continuously innovate and reinvent his business processes ahead of the competition. Then he hit a wall. Growth stopped and profits softened.

He began asking questions: Do we have the right team? Ben knew that entrepreneurs often hit a wall at certain thresholds of growth so he seeded his executive team with people from larger companies who in turn asked: Do we have the most effective business processes? He engaged in business process redesign which resulted in more efficiency. How do we develop more esprit de corps and teamwork? He redesigned his company so that it was team-based, he trained people in teaming skills and engaged in teambuilding at all levels of the company with modest success. However, there was very uneven energy and enthusiasm – most of which was a carry-over from the initial explosive growth. Do we have work space that will enable us to continue to grow? He moved his company into newer, larger and more beautiful quarters. Do we have the right image? With the help of the marketing consultants, he changed the company name and logo.

He now had beautiful quarters, a polished image, efficient processes, staff that knew how to perform as a team (should they so choose) and a more focused strategy. Neither profits nor growth budged. Clearly, the results indicated that Ben had not landed the right question.

It doesn’t matter whether you are focused on strategy or simple decisions, when you don’t like the results you are getting, it is time to revisit your outcome question before you turn to questions about what it takes to get there. But how do you discover the flaws in your questions so that you can shape a new one? There are three markers that guide you to the right question. They can be summed up in the following words: pull, energy and flow and they apply at every level.

The first marker is pull. This is the attraction or influence you experience in response to something that matters to you. All questions create pull. The gripping corporate questions are those that have compelling values. These questions are squarely focused on big value to the customer or client … value that sets you apart with the customer and creates stretch for the organization. These questions profoundly resonate with what matters to everyone in the organization. You don’t have to talk them into it. They get why it matters. Great outcome questions are also inclusive. They rise above differences. They therefore, pull unity of purpose.

Look around you. Do the right, most important things matter? Do people “get it?” Are they unified and fired up? These are the indicators that your question has powerful pull.

The second marker is energy. An energized workplace is alive … crackling with ideas. A non-energized workplace is deadening. The difference is palpable. The greater the pull, the more it energizes and compels people to action. Look at the energy. Is high energy the norm or just the exception? Is it self- reinforcing or do you need a crisis to kick up the energy? Low or intermittent energy indicates that you haven’t landed the “right” outcome question.

The third marker is flow. Flow occurs when the pull of a great challenge is combined with the skill and expertise to make it happen. When a team is in flow they think, communicate and act almost as a single organism … with little or no resistance. Communication seems effortless and intuitive. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who performed the original landmark study on flow, observed that people often tap previously unrecognized, individual and collective resources when they are in flow. They find the experience deeply fulfilling … even memorable. When people experience flow, they long to repeat it.

Flow is the most subtle indicator of whether you have landed the primary question, because it also requires high individual and organizational competence. But look for high commitment and focus. Look for agreement on what matters and a high level of intensity about it. These indicate that your question is capable of creating flow.

Now let’s look at how pull, energy and flow worked for Ben. First, he lost track of what he was pulling. He needed to raise the bar with a big value question and instead he changed the subject to performance questions. His questions were all focused on organizational competence. That’s fine if you have landed the outcome question. But he had not. The most important requisite of pull, compelling values, had receded into the background. Rather than creating unity, his questions dispersed and dissipated energy. For this reason, in spite of his team-building efforts, the unity of purpose that creates flow never materialized … not even sporadically. Instead of kick starting a new round of profit and growth, he was running in place.

Ben could have asked a question that mattered to everyone and that would have pulled everyone onto the same page by raising the bar on value as Steve Jobs did when he returned to Apple. Performance and growth would have followed. Great value questions connect people to the customer or client. They are so compelling that they create their own success. They don’t need to be plastered on posters for everyone to know what they are. They are even self evident to the customer. You don’t have to own an Apple product to infer that their questions are about products that have simple, clean, eye-popping design and that bring the customers who use them to their own cutting edge. You may not find their questions on a poster, but you can bet that everyone at Apple gets it and that it pulls extraordinary performance.

A question about how to create extraordinary service that sets his company apart from the competition would have galvanized commitment and sharpened the focus for both Ben and the people in his company. He would have then been able to address issues of organizational competence with a new set of eyes. Powerful value questions pull people’s desire to efficiently find the right people, build solid relationships, build on each others’ ideas, use processes that follow efficient paths and develop work habits that are uncomplicated and lean.

These can be captured in five critical areas of proficiency: social networks, social capital, conversational competence, interactive processes and individual processes. Csikszentmihalyi stressed that flow only occurs in the presence of superior high competence at the task. For groups and organizations, that includes these five proficiencies. Rather than throwing the next best thing against the wall to see if it would stick, Ben would have been exploiting the pull of his big value question to drive the attainment of mastery required in each of these organizational competencies. He would have asked specific questions of each.

Social networks: Ben would have made sure that people knew how to discern and set in motion the optimal social networks pulled by his primary question. He would challenge people to ask: “If we had no constraints in the form of silos, bottlenecks, lines of authority or other limitations, who would we go to?”

Social Capital: Ben would have asked: “How do we continuously add to the bank account of mutual respect and trust that can sustain divergent, out- of-the box ideas?” The broader the thinking pulled by the outcome question, the greater the bank account of social capital required. The test of social capital is the diversity of ideas that can be sustained.

The Quality of Conversations: Big questions require out-of-the-box thinking. They move people to reach for and leverage their very best joint intellectual resources. Ben would have insisted that people ask: “Do our conversations produce shared meaning, discovery, new understanding and common ground?”

Interactive processes include not only the tools that are used to promote group consensus and effective decision-making but also the array of activities through which people engage in conversations. They add value to the extent that they create simple almost invisible paths of least resistance. So Ben would have used the intense pull of his big question to stimulate a corporate mantra: “Does this process add value or create waste?

Individual work and thinking processes are the foundation upon which people are able to collectively develop great ideas and move them forward. These processes include everything from how to structure time and organize work to how to attend to each subject without the bleed-through of distractions. They are the engine of contributions that are just-in-time and that represent the best thinking of each contributor. Ben would ask: “Do individual work and thinking processes enable people to step up?”

Ben’s job, at this point, would be to help people translate what is now only a predisposition into daily reality in the workplace. He would have encouraged people to trust their instincts, create fluid networks, insist on solid relationships and blow the whistle on silos and other barriers … and he would have backed them up. He would have insisted on the norm of making interactive and individual processes lean and simple.

He would have stayed riveted on the question: “Are we demonstrating the required mastery in each competency area to deliver on big value?” He would have then focused: training, coaching, facilitation, process redesign and support systems precisely where they were needed. He might have implemented some of the very initiatives that followed from his initial questions … but each would now have been driven by the measure of competence required to deliver on his big value outcome question. The scatter-shot approach would become a thing of the past.

He would have asked people to join him in paying attention not only to the results of their work but also to the way they worked together to achieve it … the quality of their flow. He would have helped them to recognize that flow is more than simply a marker for refining an outcome question. It is also a reliable barometer of the effectiveness of the people in his company at discerning and executing on the behaviors and attitudes being pulled by that question.

Once Ben leads with the right questions, he can count on a newly energized work force to leverage their very best knowledge, experience and wisdom to move him into a new phase of growth driven by innovation.

If you want to change your results, change the questions you are asking. Follow the markers. Let the pull of the big value question drive execution in the five competency areas.

These principles apply at any scale. They apply to individuals as well as organizations. Notice your outcomes. Pay attention to what you are asking for. Refine your questions using pull, energy and flow as personal markers. Discern the optimal form of each competency. Pull out all of the stops and you will make it happen.

Csikszentmihaly, Mihaly. Flow. New York, New York: Harper & Row, 1990.