A successful basketball coach was telling me about the difference between making plays and running plays, and how the best players do both.

Running plays

Sports teams have set plays – we’ve all heard the term “playbook” – and they practice them.  These are about scoring.  For the play to work during a game, the coach has to know when to call for the play and then the players have to execute flawlessly.  And there’s the wild card of the other team making an adjustment that makes the play ineffective no matter how well it’s executed.

Making plays

Making a play, on the other hand, is when a player on the court (yes, you have to be in the game!) makes something happen based on reading the game situation and taking an action to help her team score.  It’s about making a move, creating an opportunity, improvising and finding another way to get a shot.

Being “ambidextrous”

While it’s poetry in motion to see a set play working, real life often gets in the way and the play doesn’t work.  That’s when you need your players to be able to make a play.

When plan A falls apart, the best leaders can improvise.

This coach estimates that at least 75-80% of the time, scoring is about players making plays.  That’s because both on and off the court, life is unpredictable and to paraphrase Darwin, it’s those who adapt that win.

The great players are able to do both.  Being “ambidextrous” means they can always get a shot.

Leaders as play-makers

This applies in business and other walks of life as well.  When plan A falls apart, the best leaders can improvise.

But like the greatest players, leaders have to have the foundation to be able to improvise and make plays:  Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hours” of practice to develop the requisite skills, the equivalent hours of game experience, the physical and mental fitness to stay sharp when it matters, and the desire to succeed.

If you’re already making plays, go do more.  If you’re still building your foundation, then learning to run the play flawlessly is a great place to start.  It hones your skills and builds your muscles.  It’s like jazz musicians needing a strong core of classical music theory before they can improvise around it.

Either way, don’t get stuck at just running the play, even though it’s a beautiful team activity.  The best leaders can lead the team to score outside of the set play as well.

Now, go out and make your play.