In the glow of the US women’s national soccer team’s World Cup title—and the long record of success the team has had over the years—it’s easy to forget that victory didn’t always seem quite so inevitable. Although the team dominated and won the World Cup in 2015, a year later it lost to Sweden in the quarterfinals of the Olympics.

Coach Jill Ellis noticed that Sweden employed a fundamentally different strategy than she expected. To add to the problem, many of her key players were getting older. She needed to make changes. But what changes?

Scientific thinking (Plan-Do-Study-Adjust, or PDSA) teaches us to experiment our way to improvements, because it’s impossible to know in advance what will work. Ellis stated publicly that she was going to put the team through an evolution that she felt necessary to win the 2019 World Cup. As Sports Illustrated reports, that’s precisely what Ellis did:

vowing to unlock more creativity in the attack, Ellis launched a period of experimentation (with formations and new players) that proved an old adage: Real change can be an ugly and uncomfortable process long before it becomes glorious.

Not all experiments are successful the first time. At the SheBelieves Cup the following year, the team notched two draws and only one win. The nadir was its game against France: the US team went down 2-0 after nine minutes to France and ultimately lost 3-0.

Critics assailed Ellis for not knowing what she was doing, and making the most talented team in the world look bad. After all, look at the lousy results.

But that’s precisely the point of experimentation—it’s to see what doesn’t work, so you can figure out what might work. That’s what happens on Mythbusters, except no one attacks those guys for “failing” when their initial attempt doesn’t work out. It’s the constant experimentation that makes the TV show interesting and enables them to get where they want to go (usually, blowing something up). Mike Rother captured this idea in a Toyota Kata slide:


By the following year, Ellis settled on an unconventional 4-3-3 lineup (four defenders, three midfielders and three forwards). She used different personnel from the Olympic team, including Rose LaVelle, who became one of the breakout stars in France.

In 2018, the team was undefeated.

It 2019 it won the World Cup.


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