Lessons Learned Case #7

“Conventional wisdom is an oxymoron”

Author/contributor: Art Murray

Applicable to: Decision making; Innovation; Life in general


Story: Here’s another great lessons-learned story from the late NFL coach Bill Walsh's book "The Score Takes Care of Itself…"

When it comes to drafting players, NFL coaches and scouts can be pretty obsessed with numbers. For prospects at the wide receiver position, a favorite metric is the player’s time in the 40-yard dash. It makes sense. After all, a receiver’s speed off the line of scrimmage is the key to beating the defending cornerback and getting open.

Walsh, the San Francisco 49ers head coach, didn’t see it that way. On the night before an away game he was sitting in his hotel room watching sports highlights on a local television station. One of the featured teams was an itty bitty college in Itta Bena, Mississippi, where earlier that day the starting wide receiver clearly wasn’t the fastest, but he made up for it in other ways.

While all the other scouts were looking at raw speed, Walsh saw in this young player (whose 40-yard dash clocked in at a dismal 4.6 seconds) what he describes as “functional speed, fantastic moves, hands that were as sure as a surgeon's, and the heart of a warrior.” (Functional speed is the speed at which a player can move once he has the ball in his hands).

That young wide receiver was none other than Jerry Rice, who long after his retirement still holds several NFL records by a wide margin, and is often referred to as the greatest receiver of all time.

Walsh recalls being strongly advised not to waste a first-round draft choice on Rice. According to conventional wisdom, he was a sixth- or seventh-round pick at best.

Walsh ignored what everyone else was telling him, and instead chose Rice in the first round, focusing not on his raw speed but on his moves from fifteen to fifty yards out. After all, when you think about it, that’s what really counts most in a game when everything’s on the line. Not a stopwatch reading based on how fast a player runs on an open track.

Are you letting conventional wisdom limit your ability to come up with new ideas? It might be in more ways than you realize...

Setting (situational context):
  • Date and time: 1984-1985
  • People and their roles: San Francisco 49ers head coach Bill Walsh; NFL Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice
  • Place: Unknown
Problem (symptoms/observations, why it’s a problem and the impact if not solved): The problem is knowing when to go "against the grain" and make a decision that runs counter to conventional wisdom. Sometimes it's best to ride a trend, especially if the trend has a great deal of momentum. The danger of following the crowd is that often the crowd is wrong. There is also the chance of missing out on a tremendous opportunity. But going against the crowd also means taking a risk.

Goal (challenge): Having the courage to trust your instincts and do the opposite of what everyone else is doing.

Root cause (of the problem/challenge and how it was determined): Not looking past the one or two things everyone else is focusing on.

Solution (action taken and how it came about): Resisting the urge to "follow the crowd and try to uncover what opportunities they may be overlooking.

Outcome (the end result and its impact): What appeared to be a wasted opportunity (in this case, the use of a first-round draft pick) turned out to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

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

Cautions/warnings: Of course, conventional wisdom is often right. The trick is trusting your instincts and knowing when to go against the grain.

Lesson (moral of the story, guidelines, rules, recommendations): In Walsh’s own words: “Conventional wisdom often produces conventional results. When striving to go beyond conventional results, you must go beyond the conventional and against popular opinion. This means trusting your own judgment enough to be resourceful, innovative, and imaginative. It means resisting the herd mentality.”

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. 166-167.