fosbury_bar_200On grainy TVs in the summer of 1968, ABC Sports trumpeted something dramatic: a high jumper competing for the gold by leaping over the bar… backwards! Americans ran to their living rooms to gape each time Dick Fosbury made an attempt.

Serial entrepreneur and professor John Greathouse probes the origins of Fosbury’s innovation:

[Fosbury] began experimenting with alternative, unconventional methods of high jumping as a high school sophomore. Rejecting the straddling approach, which had been the standard for the prior forty years, Dick tweaked the old-fashioned scissor kick, eventually morphing it into a new and unique approach, which was eventually dubbed the “Fosbury Flop.”

The track and field community initially scorned Fosbury’s approach, labeling it “unsafe” and “too unorthodox” for the average jumper to master. However, nothing sells an innovative idea like winning. After Fosbury set an Olympic record at the 1968 Mexico City games, jumping 7 feet 4.25 inches, track coaches all over the world took notice.

The adoption of the Fosbury Flop was rapid. The last high jumper to set a world record using the straddling approach was Vladimir Yashchenko in 1977. As shown in the chart below The Fosbury Flop had become the international standard by the 1980 Olympics.


The Fosbury Flop helps illustrate an essential principle of innovation:  “…Whereas it may be appealing to focus on the future, breakthrough innovation depends on exploiting the past.” (Kathleen Eisenhardt, from the foreward of How Breakthroughs Happen by Andrew Hargadon) It is in the combining and synthesizing of long-established or emerging elements, often from disparate fields, that new solutions spring. If we reverse-engineer the Fosbury Flop, we can tease apart the details of training, equipment, and technique assembled and refined by Fosbury. For example, he abandoned the mainstream straddle technique and began experimenting with the older scissor kick. There was also a game changer that is too frequently left out of the picture (literally and figuratively): “Given that landing surfaces had previously been sandpits or low piles of matting, high jumpers of earlier years had to land on their feet or at least land carefully to prevent injury. With the advent of deep foam matting high jumpers were able to be more adventurous in their landing styles and hence experiment with styles of jumping.”


This same recombinant pattern is evident in the birth of mass production at Ford Motor Company, as chronicled by Andrew Hardagon in his book How Breakthroughs Happen. Interchangeable parts and tools were essential but had been part of industrial production for nearly a century. Continuous flow production was already widely in use by H.J. Heinz, Campbell Soup, and other food canners and processors. The final major innovation in the Ford system was bringing the work to the worker rather than the worker to the work — and Henry Ford credited Chicago meatpackers for that insight.


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