Lessons Learned Case #5

Turning Lemons Into Lemonade

Author/contributor: Art Murray

Applicable to: Innovation; Lessons Learned About Lessons Learned (turning mistakes into a tactical advantage); Life in general


Story: In his book, “The Score Takes Care of Itself,” the late NFL Hall of Fame Coach Bill Walsh tells a great story of how a mistake led to a major change in how football teams run their offense. It goes back to a time when he was an assistant coach with the Cincinnati Bengals…

“Early in the second half of our game with the Oakland Raiders, Bengals tight end Bob Trumpy came out of the huddle and lined up on the wrong end of the line of scrimmage—the left instead of the right side, as the play called for.

“Trumpy recognized his mistake almost immediately and tried to correct it by sliding over to the right side before the ball snap. The Raiders were utilizing a complex pass defense at the time, so when they saw Bob shifting from one end of the line of scrimmage to the other—legal, but not done—all hell broke loose.

“Oakland defensive backs began frantically flapping their arms and screaming, running around and creating havoc as they tried to react to the bizarre movement of Cincinnati's wandering tight end. Three of them actually collided in the middle of the field. The whole scene was kind of funny, although nobody was laughing on either bench. We lost yardage on the play, and when Bob trotted to the sidelines with a sheepish look on his face, he muttered to head coach Paul Brown, ‘Sorry, Coach. It won't happen again.’"

Walsh goes on to describe how, while he and the other coaches were reviewing the play on film the following day, everybody in the room laughed. That is, everyone except Bill Johnson, the Bengals’ offensive line coordinator. Instead, he was thinking, “What would happen if we put Trumpy in motion intentionally and worked plays off of it?”

Walsh recalls staying up most of that night thinking up ways of turning what was initially an accident into a tactical advantage. Soon every team in the league had added it to their playbook. Over the years, he built upon this lesson learned, creating what has come to be known as the “West Coast Offense.”

He closes out the story by asking: “What's your own version of Trumpy's lemon and Johnson's lemonade? Is it right there in front of you, unseen because your thinking is rigid and resistant to originality and change? How effective are you at turning nothing into something – something that changes everything?”

Setting (situational context):
  • Date and time: circa 1968
  • People and their roles: Cincinnati Bengals (Assistant Coaches: Bill Walsh, Bill Johnson; Tight End: Bob Trumpy)
  • Place: Cincinnati, OH USA
Problem (symptoms/observations, why it’s a problem and the impact if not solved): When something goes wrong, the tendency is to punish the guilty. In the story, everyone was laughing during the review except one person who saw the mistake as an opportunity to shake things up.

Goal (challenge): Having the courage to shake off a humiliating mistake and instead, looking for how it can be turned into an opportunity through innovation.

Root cause (of the problem/challenge and how it was determined): Knee-jerk reactions and focusing on what's wrong can inhibit innovation.

Solution (action taken and how it came about): In this case, it was simply asking "How can we use this to our advantage?"

Outcome (the end result and its impact): A seemingly dumb, mental error ultimately led to a major change in how football is played.

Analysis (what worked and why, what didn’t work and why):

Cautions/warnings: Don't be too quick to dismiss what seems to be a mistake on the surface.

Lesson (moral of the story, guidelines, rules, recommendations): When life gives you a lemon, figure out a way to use it to make lemonade. True leaders find ways to turn an accident into an asset.

Full narrative:

Source data/documents: "The Score Takes Care of Itself: My Philosophy of Leadership," Bill Walsh, with Steve Jamison and Craig Walsh, Penguin Portfolio, 2009, p. 39-40.