Why innovators need to think like Dick Fosbury

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Manifestations of innovation come in various sizes and shapes and many are the result of attempts to exploit changes in the environment. In the area of track and field, the 1960s were a period of unusually rapid change due to the introduction of high-tech, lightweight materials. And as the environment changed, innovation followed with the introduction of lightweight shoes and other equipment. But perhaps the most significant innovation during this period had nothing to do with these more obvious high-tech changes; rather, it was the result of a simple (low-tech) change in the composition of the landing pit that high jumpers used to cushion their falls after jumping.

Up until the early 1960s, the landing surface for most high jump venues was piles of sand or sawdust. Because of this, high jumpers all used similar techniques—the Straddle, the Western Roll or the Scissors Jump—designed to give the jumper the best opportunity to clear the bar and land on his or her feet after the jump was completed. This was essential to prevent injury because the landing surfaces had one thing in common: they were hard—not soft—and landing on anything other than one’s feet was the surest way to get a back or neck injury. But as the decade progressed and an increased emphasis of safety permeated the sport, deeper piles of foam replaced the hard sandpits and sawdust. With this safety change, the sport of high jump became ripe for innovation.

Enter Dick Fosbury. As a 16-year-old high jumper from Medford, Oregon, Fosbury was a below-average jumper who used the traditional Straddle technique. Hungry to improve, Fosbury began experimenting with different technique and over the next two years improved his jumping height from 5 feet to 6 feet 7 inches. His secret? A new way of jumping that allowed Fosbury to go over the bar backwards, headfirst, curving his body over the bar and kicking his legs up in the air at the end of the jump. This required him to land on his back, but he was able to land safely thanks to the new deep foam matting. This new technique was soon dubbed the “Fosbury Flop.”

In 1968, Fosbury used his new technique to win the NCAA championship and qualify at the Olympic trials. At the Summer Olympics in Mexico City, he won the gold medal and set a new Olympic record at 7 feet 4.25 inches, displaying the potential of the new technique. Despite the initial skeptical reactions from the high jumping community, the Fosbury Flop quickly gained acceptance.

Almost immediately after Fosbury won gold in Mexico City, the Fosbury Flop became the most popular style among high jumpers worldwide. As the world record for the high jump has progressed since then, all record jumps have been made using Fosbury’s innovative style. And today, it’s rare to see any jumper—man or woman, elite or non-elite—use a style other than the Fosbury Flop.

So why does this matter for innovators? The answer is that like Dick Fosbury, we need to recognize and act on changes—sometimes dramatic and other times quite subtle—within our environment. While his competition focused on refining existing techniques to take advantage of new lightweight materials, Fosbury recognized that the change in the landing surface (foam replacing hard sandpits and sawdust) was the real catalyst for a game-changing innovation.

Here’s the takeaway: Are there subtle changes in today’s rapidly changing world that others may have missed? Don’t be satisfied to run with the rest of the pack – think different (as Apple likes to say). Today’s shifting environment—regulatory, demographic, technology, etc.—is ripe for innovation, but the real winners will be those who can exploit value from change that others have overlooked.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Patrick Lefler
Patrick Lefler is the founder of The Spruance Group -- a management consultancy that helps growing companies grow faster by providing unique value at the product level: specifically product marketing, pricing, and innovation. He is a former Marine Corps officer; a graduate of both Annapolis and The Wharton School, and has over twenty years of industry expertise.

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