Lessons from Brett Favre on Permission and Innovation


It's a big week for American football. Monday was the College Football Playoff championship game. Alabama, led by Nick Saban and his “Processwere defeated by Clemson. Tomorrow and Sunday bring us the second round of NFL playoff games.

One phrase I heard a lot of Monday night (and we'll hear over the weekend in the pro game) is “Run-Pass Option,” or RPO. Even if you don't care about football, I think there's an interesting story to be told in this post.

My wife really doesn't care for football, but she agreed this story was interesting from a leadership perspective.

I did a Google search to try to find out who invented the RPO. One search result was an article that claims former NFL great Brett Favre created it (or Favre claims it).

The headline tells part of the story:

Brett Favre broke down how he unintentionally invented the RPO without telling the coaches

Without telling the coaches? Interesting. That drew me in even more.

“Brett Favre invented the RPO because he was bored during running plays, and he didn't wait for the coaching staff's permission to test it out.”

For one, it's interesting to see how often (in various workplaces), we get small incremental improvements (often called “kaizen“) or larger leaps of innovation when people are bored or otherwise have free time.

That's just one reason why I think it's pennywise and pound foolish for hospitals to rush to send home “excess staff.” Toyota never sends people home early… they engage them in improvement activities that develop people and improve the organization. See posts like this one and this one for more about utilizing people's free time.

So Favre was bored in practice and was screwing around… and ended up creating something new. But why couldn't he tell his coaches what he was doing?

“It had to work. I wasn't going to say, ‘Mike, I'm going to do this in a game.' I said to myself, ‘I'm gonna do it and show him that it works before I ask.' Because if I asked permission, all these old coaches are like, ‘We're gonna do it the way it's supposed to be done.‘”

Brett Favre

In our workplaces, how often do we have a culture that doesn't allow people to try new things? How often do we require “guaranteed success” before we're allowed to try something new?

Sometimes, we have to take risks. We have to smart about it… we shouldn't irresponsibly try new things that would likely cause harm. That said, if we require 100% success, then people will be scared to try anything.

So, in a Lean culture (or in a culture of continuous improvement), we have to make it safe for people to speak up and take intelligent risks. When we do a small test of change, we're mitigating some of that risk of failure.

“The way we've always done it” isn't a recipe for success in sports, in business, or in healthcare.

What can you do to create a culture where people are respected enough that they feel safe to bring up something without fear of being criticized or punished for having a “dumb idea?”

Here is video of Favre talking to Jon Gruden about how he started doing this, in this tweet:

I certainly didn't expect to find anything blog worthy in that search about the origins of RPO…

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. I really love the idea of not immediately sending home “excess” employees. I have had a number of jobs where I would have been considered somewhat “under-utilized” from an accountant’s perspective, but my natural curiosity filled my downtime with both useful (and yet-to-be-useful) experimentation. In one job, I taught myself to program from scratch and then programmed a customer-facing web application that ended up being adopted by my organization into the enterprise architecture. Of course, I didn’t ask for permission or tell my boss what I was doing. If I told him I had free time, he would have asked me to make more widgets.

    More employers need to realize that operating at maximum efficiency can actually stifle innovation.

    Additionally, companies need to remember that their employees are naturally going to innovate because human beings are creative. The only question is whether employees exercise their creativity solely for their own benefit (gaming the system) or if employee creativity can be harnessed by the company for the benefit of both company and employee. The latter is what work should be about.

    Here’s an interesting article on different attitudes towards employee creativity in the tech world.

    • Thanks, Oscar. I’d go so far as to say:

      “More employers need to realize that operating at maximum efficiency WILL actually stifle innovation.”

      100% utilization also leads to really bad flow and, most likely, really poor safety and quality.

      • In his book, Toyota Production System, Taiichi Ohno describes TPS as a “full-work system,” one that strives for 100% utilization (linked machines, no workers waiting, “the total elimination of waste”). But, as we all know, Toyota has really good flow, good safety, high quality, and lots of innovative employee suggestions. They are not incongruous, as you suggest — but they certainly can be in cases where TPS is misunderstood and misapplied.

        • Queuing Theory math and “Factory Physics” reality would say that for 100% utilization to have good flow, you’d need to drive almost all variation out of the system. And maybe Toyota plants do a great job of that, in terms of cycle time variation, downtime variation, etc. Striving for 100% utilization and getting there are two different things, sort of like driving for zero defects or other examples of perfection.

  2. I always enjoy the snappy banter and repartee between you and Dr. Emiliani.

    Perhaps there is no mention of Queuing Theory in early TPS publications because the notion of accepting and institutionalizing variation is incompatible with Toyota thinking.

    • This is totally not where I expected discussion would go on this blog post… but maybe there was no mention of, say, Little’s Law in a 1970s book because the science was still being established? From Wikipedia:

      “In a 1954 paper Little’s law was assumed true and used without proof.[6][7] The form L = λW was first published by Philip M. Morse where he challenged readers to find a situation where the relationship did not hold.[6][8] Little published in 1961 his proof of the law, showing that no such situation existed.[9] Little’s proof was followed by a simpler version by Jewell[10] and another by Eilon.[11] Shaler Stidham published a different and more intuitive proof in 1972.[12][13]”

      I don’t think that recognizing the science and math of Queuing Theory means “accepting and institutionalizing variation.” It does to show why total has so little WIP and such good cycle times… they’ve done a lot to minimize and reduce variation. But variation still exists in their process and results. Otherwise they wouldn’t have “buffers” of a few vehicles at the turns in their final assembly lines…

      • Fair enough, sorry for the digression.

        Toyota Kata is a great mechanism for making it safe to fail, the emphasis is on pace and learning, rather than solving.

        I used to think there were 3 elements of employee problem solving – like needing 3 elements for combustion – interest, time and tools.

        • Tools are the visible and easy thing to share, that’s why we often start and stop with them. They’re also easy to use by almost everyone (although Brett Favre’s toolset was a bit different than Steve Walsh’s).

        • It is leadership’s job to make sure everyone has time to work on improvement. Most productivity metrics measure machine productivity and people productivity the same way. Perhaps Toyota considers time spent on process and personal improvement as ‘productive’. Could we treat free time on the schedule as “we’re up by 21 with 4 minutes to play, let’s try a few things”?

        • Maybe the conversation needs to shift from “solving” to “learning”. Celebrate the learning, approach every problem as an opportunity to learn. Not everyone will channel their boredom into tinkering to find a better way. Encouraging tinkering might increase that number.

        • No, the digression is fine… it was just unexpected that we all ended up talking about variation and queuing theory.

          I agree that we should spend more time discovering and testing ideas with feedback loops instead of knowing and implementing.

          I don’t know the details about Toyota’s productivity measurement, but I do know that they’re willing to pay overtime for team members to work on Kaizen.

    • Hi Tom – Glad you like the “snappy banter and repartee!” I suspect you are correct with regards to not wanting to institutionalize variation. It’s existence only means we: a) have not recognized or or b) have not yet found a practical way to eliminate it.

      Additionally, Toyota’s kaizen method is trial-and-error — essentially, “try it and see.” Things like Little’s Law are predictions that may not be true under all circumstances, and which would generate an anchoring bias. Knowing the law would diminish “trystorming” and related discovery and learning. This, in turn, would retard or even prevent human development.


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