In preparation for a management workshop, I was searching for a good way to illustrate how effective change can be achieved through either a series of small steps, or one giant leap.
I found myself thinking of Dick Fosbury and the eponymous “flop” that won him the gold medal in the men’s high jump at the 1968 Mexican Olympic Games. Just what I needed – an example of a new technique that caused one man to make significant progress.
I constructed a whole session based on the assumption that Fosbury’s pioneering technique illustrates how, sometimes, one has to change the system completely in order to make significant progress.
I was going to ask my audience whether their company was in a phase of small, incremental growth or whether they needed a Dick Fosbury. Feeling very pleased with myself, I began looking for the numbers to validate my theory – and got quite a shock.
Fosbury won his gold with a height of 2.24m – not even close to the 2.28 world record set five years earlier by the Soviet Union’s Valeriy Brumel in Moscow in 1963. Dick never made the record books. Not once did he get close to the world record set using the “straddle”, technique. Further research showed that, since the 2m mark was first jumped by American George Horine in 1912, there have been 45 world records (including several disputed and declared “unofficial” ones).
Thirty-seven of these have been an increase of just 1cm, with the largest single improvement being 4cm by another American, John Thomas, who was merely beating his own previous best in 1960, which he did a total of five times in that year.
Since the Fosbury Flop was adopted as the only method to compete at the highest levels of the high jump, the world record has been broken 19 times (most recently by the current holder, Cuban Javier Sotomayor, with a height of 2.45m).
I thought: “All I’ve got now is an example of an activity that has only ever seen small, incremental steps as opposed to one large one.” But, again, I was wrong.
On looking more closely, I saw that Sotomayor’s record was set in 1993 and, on double-checking, discovered that, despite all the advances in just about every field of sport during the past 16 years, his achievement hasn’t been equalled, never mind beaten – in fact, his is the longest-standing world record in athletics today.
So I returned to my original idea and concluded that Dick Fosbury does deserve his status as perhaps the only high jumper people can name, despite never raising the bar himself. I say this because it must have taken the athletes of the late sixties some time to adjust.
Imagine: you’ve been perfecting an established process for years and some upstart comes up with a new idea (one that doesn’t even get close to your best performance). Are you going to rush off and adopt it? No. The Fosbury Flop took some years to perfect, requiring a whole new generation to master it before scaling unimaginable new heights for the next 25 years.
And it would appear that the flop, too, has had its day. What high jumping requires now is another Dick Fosbury. A radical new approach that, while it may not necessarily give the originator that much of a gain, allows others to take the idea on and press forward to achieve even better things.
And, so, I took my idea forward and presented it to my audience. It came out even better than I had originally imagined because it goes to show what many innovators have discovered: any new idea needs to be honed and refined to really reach new heights.
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