Say you're Apple, and you're about to introduce new iPhones that don't have a headphone jack. What if customers don't embrace the move?
Or say you're Eric Ripert, and you constantly change the menu at Le Bernardin to keep pushing the fine dining envelope... but even though it no longer appears on the menu many customers still order the flattened tuna. So you still serve it.
Both examples -- among plenty others I could list -- raise key questions.
How do you decide when to make a major change to your products or services? How do you balance the needs of all your constituents: customers, employees, stakeholders, partners, etc. How do you do what makes sense for your business while ensuring the change works for everyone?
That's a challenge NASCAR recently faced: how to rework the points and playoff system to make the sport even more exciting. How do you keep loyal fans loyal, while attracting a new audience at the same time?
Since the first race of the season, the Daytona 500, airs this Sunday at 2 p.m. EST on Fox, it seemed like the perfect time to ask -- so I talked to Scott Miller, NASCAR's Senior Vice President of Competition.
But before we get to Scott, here's some background on the changes.
Starting this season, each race will be broken into three segments. The top ten finishers in each stage will be awarded Championship points. Win a stage, get 10 points. Finish 10th, get 1 point. (Finish 11th or worse and you get no points.)
Win the final stage - in short, win the race - and you get 40 points. The rest of the field will be awarded points in descending order. (If you finish 40th you get 1 point.)
Drivers earn Championship points from every race during the regular season, and those points help determine which drivers make the Playoffs. (In recent years NASCAR's playoff system was called "The Chase.") Once the playoffs start, Championship points are re-set to zero in order to level the playing field.
But not quite zero. Win a stage of a race and you receive one Playoff point. Win a race and you receive 5 Playoff points. You get to keep those points when the playoffs start - and if you had the most Championship points during the regular season, you also carry a bonus of 15 Playoff points into the post-season. (For more detail, check out the official release.)
The changes are designed to make the "regular season" matter more, to create two natural breaks during the race that television can use for commercial breaks while still ensuring that fans don't miss any of the action... and at least from my point of view, add a heavy dose of additional strategy to an already strategy-filled sport.
The "what" is interesting - but if you're a business owner, the "how" matters a lot more to you. So let's see what Scott had to say.
Every major change starts with "Why?" So: Why?
Several factors went into it. At NASCAR, we've worked hard to put systems in place to get input from industry stakeholders, teams, broadcasters, tracks, manufacturers, etc. We're constantly looking for suggestions, and input, and ideas we should move forward with.
So we sat down in Las Vegas, brought in eighteen to twenty influential people from the industry, and held a fairly informal conference. Those conversations build momentum to look at formats that would incentivize every single race a little bit more, put more emphasis on what a driver did during the regular season, and have the regular season carry into the playoffs.
One of the things we heard from the drivers is that they felt the regular season didn't help them at all moving forward towards the championship. So we tried to solve for a number of things, but first and foremost we worked on the competition element. The primary goal was to create more incentive for the drivers to compete for stage points, and as a by-product to compete for points would carry into the Playoffs.
A natural outcome of the stage format is greater predictability in terms of commercial breaks.
Often when you solve for your primary goal, you get other positive outcomes. And you're right, the new format does create natural breaks in the race so broadcast can minimize the need to break away from green flag action.
When we first talked about the stage format, we didn't think about that, though. That was a happy accident, so to speak. Again, the primary goal was to improve the competition. And I definitely think we've done that. We tried to solve for competition, but we then worked really hard to make sure there were positive consequences for the rest of our stakeholders.
If I'm a broadcaster in the booth, I like the change because I automatically get more to talk about, and every race now automatically involves more "moments."
That's why they were involved in the process. They're key stakeholders and their opinions are important. The new format definitely creates new story lines, and more "winning moments," and a variety of new things to talk about throughout what is a long event. Races are long, and more they have to talk about, and the more moments we can create, the better for all of us.
There will be a number of strategic decisions teams will need to make and broadcasters can discuss. If there's a caution flag close to the end of a stage, do I pit? Do I stay out? How will that impact what I do in the next stage?
Think of it this way. The more moments we create for fans, the better. And of course the more moments we create for fans, the more moments we create for our broadcast partners. It's a win-win.
Involving stakeholders naturally increases their buy-in. You want your changes to be embraced, not "endured."
Buy in coming out of the process was really important to us. All the people on the stage during the announcement were intimately involved in the process as we worked through it.
Every single one of those people was involved in every step of the process.
The was probably one of the best collaborative decisions we've made as an industry, with all of our stakeholders. I really feel honored to have been a part of the process. It worked extremely well and I can't thank everyone enough. They all have day jobs yet they willingly gave up their time to be part of taking the sport in a new direction.
Do you worry about the fans coming up to speed with the changes, or about alienating some of your long-term fan base?
We kept that in mind the entire time. What we constantly sought to do was to boil the system down to be as simple as possible while still accomplishing our goals.
Making things simple but also effective takes a lot of effort, and I think we pulled it off. While the new points system does have a little bit of complexity to it, once the broadcasters talk about it, once secondary programming explains it.... before long it will be second nature and won't be at all hard to understand.
Are you worried about an outcome you didn't foresee? Every time I've made a major change I've missed at least one unintended outcome.
We spent a tremendous amount of time on scenario planning. Still, for us to think we've considered every single thing that might happen is unrealistic (laughs), but we've done a lot of work internally to make sure that things don't crop up that create, say, a scoring snafu. We've done a lot of work to make sure we're operationally prepared to handle the new system.
As NASCAR, as the governing body, we have to have all of that covered. That's our job. We're in charge of the races and the system.
Now, if somebody figures out a strategy that gives them an advantage but still works within the rules, good for them. There are a lot of smart people out there trying to figure out how to make the best decisions during a race.
Our group has dedicated a lot of time to crossing all the t's and dot the i's. Will we have missed something? Possibly.
Hopefully it's just something small, though. (Laughs.)
What is your hope for the new race format, and for the new points system?
One of the things we hoped for has already happened. Owners, teams, drivers... many of them made really positive comments after we announced things publicly. (Here are some examples.) I think who worked on this feel good. We came up with something we felt was a good step forward, and it's nice to have the people involved in the sport feel the same way.
Now I hope the fans embrace it. I believe they will. Their favorite driver will get more chances to win, more chances to be in the spotlight... I think it will make every race more exciting and make the regular season and the playoffs more interesting.
The fans are who we care about most. They're our most important stakeholder. The better the racing the better it is for our fans.