Re-writing the playbook with new ideas: The A-11 Formation

Illustration by Thomas Porostocky via New York Times
Illustration by Thomas Porostocky; New York Times

Following the post on the value of cross-pollinated ideas, today’s comes from American Football.

The story here is about the A-11 formation, developed by a High School football coach in California who radically redefined what is possible on the American Football field. In its most simple definition, the A-11 allows all 11 players on the offensive line to potentially become eligible receivers, instead of five available ones the standard configuration allows. To the non-sports-inclined, I’ll put it in a more in-your-face statistics way: the standard offensive formation allows 36 potential combinations for plays to be made, whereas the A-11 allows 16,332 combinations.

I’m fascinated with this because it is both an example of a fresh and complete re-think of a system that has been taken for granted as locked down for decades, and a hack in the purest sense – the re-purposing of existing players, expanding their functionality while not compromising their basic purposes and legalities within the rules. There is a lot of inspiration to be gained here.

Of course huge comparisons can be made here between the A-11 formation and the revolutionary technique of Total Football (we’re back to football = soccer now) pioneered by Dutch football club Ajax Amsterdam in the mid to late 1900’s. Total Football is the tactical theory in which any player can take over the role of any other player in the team. In his excellent book “Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football“, author David Winner explores Total Football at length as an exploration of space and the creation of it. As Ajax defender Barry Hulshoff says, “It was about making space, coming into space, and organizing space-like architecture on the football pitch.”

This is where the link with the A-11 formation comes home for me. In the same way that Total Football was about creating and re-organising existing space, which by its very nature is finite on the field, the A-11 represents the same thinking taking place in American Football – putting a small space to maximum use, using creativity and a blend of individualism and collectivity in entirely new ways. And while these are iconic traits of Dutch society, design and architecture, they are uncharacteristically American ones. Yet that’s what the A-11 represents – a shift in the way space is thought about on the football field by re-purposing and recycling the roles of its players, at the same time American architecture and design is beginning to think very seriously about maximising the use of small space and the re-use and recycling of existing space.

Two gems among many to take from here are:

Re-think what you already have
Whether it is your team, your possessions, or your work, hacking its original purpose and function within its existing space and role can lead to staggeringly beneficial results. (As shown above – simply change the role of 11 players, and 36 possible plays become 16,332 potential outcomes.)

Idea innovation is everywhere, particularly in sports
Whatever the sport, there is always a limitation of resources: a finite amount of time, a finite number of players, and a finite space. Thus, strategy, fresh thinking, hacks and idea execution is at its very core, and is a rich vein to tap, in a number of ways, for those of us outside the sporting world. I was at a primiere of a film that had an amazing, fast-paced dance sequence, which was captured beautifully on screen. I asked the director how he pulled the scene off. “It was easy,” he said. “The cameraman used to film games for the National Football League in America – there’s no one better at following moving sequences and judging where the people in motion are going to end up than those guys.”