Post title image: Football Factory

Football Factory

How the Kansas City Chiefs built the ultimate creative culture.

Desk Notes

Sometime in the mid-90s, the janitor for the Green Bay Packers accosted Andy Reid, then-assistant coach.

He had an idea for a new play that would guarantee the Packers a touch-down the next time it was deployed.

Andy handed him a card, and told him to draw up the play. The next game, it was in the playbook alongside hundreds of others.

Andy called it just before half-time. The result? A touch down.

Moments like this show how Andy Reid - the straight-talking cheeseburger-loving 250 pound coach of the Kansas City Chiefs - built the creativity engine that led to the team’s Super Bowl win.

Andy Reid (ft. cheeseburger).Andy Reid (ft. cheeseburger).

In American Football, the greatest teams are often seen as the ones that prioritise discipline and repetition.

Adhere to rules and strategies developed over decades, and practice them until no room for error exists. That’s how you play football.

Reid’s Chiefs have taken that rigour and applied it not to perfecting the past, but to creating the new: a new style of play, heavy on invention, improvisation, and even mischief.

And in doing so changed the way American Football is played, and started a new league-winning dynasty.

At the core of this creativity engine are two insights.

The first - from Reid directly - is that the route to quality ideas comes via lots and lots of low quality ideas.

The goal is to make the funnel as wide as possible.

Most Wednesdays, on a training field on the outskirts of Kansas City, you’ll find the team running the laboratory - what they call their practice session that day.

Beats an A/B test. Beats an A/B test.

This is where they focus on workshopping new plays to be put forward for inclusion into the team playbook, which they then pitch directly to Reid.

But Reid also goes beyond the players - I’ve already mentioned the touchdown-winning janitor - and takes ideas from everywhere.

Plays from the past. Plays inspired by random high schools and college teams.

Plays that are so weird they make the other side laugh (one play involved the team playing Ring a Ring o' Roses (they called it Snow Globe) before throwing).

The second is having the discipline to stick with a creativity-first culture despites its costs.

Take Patrick Mahomes - the Chiefs’ Quarterback. A three time Super Bowl winner (and MVP), and undeniably one of the best quarterbacks of all time: but nobody would describe his play style as textbook.

Instead Mahomes has led the team to victories (and in doing so, reinvented the way the game is played) by relying instead on an approach built around improvisation, experimentation, and fun - often described by breathy commentators as “backyard” football.

Not the recommended throwing position.Not the recommended throwing position.

Baseball style throws. Left handed throws. No look throws. Sidearm throws. Horizontal throws made whilst being tackled by a 250 pound lineman.

In many teams such a free-minded approach - that guarantees chaos and unpredictability - would have been coached out, but not at the Chiefs.

This, I think, is the real reason why the Chiefs are outliers.

It’s very difficult to create and maintain a creativity-first culture, because it defies consistent results.

The size and variety of plays the KC Chiefs have mean that you have to be more tolerant of errors, mess-ups, and dead-ends.

Even in the Super Bowl final they were 10-0 down at half time, and it was only right at the end of the game that the magic came alive.

It’s why so many organisations prioritise optimisation over creation: it’s easier to execute efficiently, than to create something new.

But Jerry Seinfeld put it once - when it comes to creativity: “if you're choosing the most efficient way you're doing it wrong.”

What strikes me about the final play that won the team the Super Bowl, with seconds on the clock, is how calm Mahomes is. 

Unless the entire team is committed to the creative vision - and the costs it’ll entail - it can be all too easy to panic.

Meaning you end up in the worst of both worlds: no rigid plan; but no ability to ride the creative tiger, and trust that the magic will come when needed.

That doesn’t mean there can’t be nerves and frustration - halfway through the game, linebacker Travis Kelce aggressively bumped Coach Reid on the sidelines.

A meme image if there ever was one.A meme image if there ever was one.

In a lot of teams (I’m thinking The Patriots in particular) Kelce would have been benched and traded at the end of the season.

Reid just shrugged it off - understanding that putting up with that is part of the price you pay for building an authentic team in which no idea is off the table.

And that’s it. To imitate is one thing, to create is another.

It’s the same in every vertical. There are playbooks, frameworks, and mechanisms by which things have been done before.

But if you want to build something great, and change the way a game is played in the way that the Chiefs have, you’re going to need to do something new.

To do so you have to build your own creativity engine - a way of taking in as many ideas as possible, discarding the ones that are truly bad, and iterating the ones that aren’t.

And you also have to have the courage to stick with your engine, trusting that - in time - it’ll produce the moments of greatness that’ll get you over the line.

Or, failing that, get yourself an endless reserve of game-winning janitors.

aled@ashore.io

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