What Business Leaders Can Learn From Athletes About Innovation

What Business Leaders Can Learn From Athletes About Innovation

The sporting world can be a surprising source of inspiration for innovation teachers. Yesterday, I read an article in GQ Sports, “The man who broke bowling”, about Jason Belmonte, “Belmo”, a 39-year-old Australian professional ten-pin bowler who has developed an unbeatable two-handed technique for delivering the ball.

His delivery is based on a special two-finger grip, without using his thumb, which allows him to use a hooking motion that creates a draw, and explodes into the pins. The result is that he wins practically every championship he enters, and although he has to face a lot of criticism, and has been described as a cancer on the sport, there is no arguing with the fact that he has found a superior way to compete.

Why did he start delivering with two hands? It’s a common enough technique for young children who can’t hold the ball with one hand. But when, at the age of seven, he was teased and told to start bowling with one hand, along the lines of, “come on, you’re a big boy now, it’s time to bowl like a grown up”, Belmonte developed his technique and achieved a 600rpm release — most bowlers reach a maximum of 400, achieving a spin that almost always ends in a strike. Now, in addition to winning championships, he has his own brand of clothing, shoes, and even a logo reminiscent of Michael Jordan’s, and is encouraging more and more players to take up two-handed bowling. When he started competing in major competitions like this, he was ridiculed, but after he started racking up silverware, they were forced to concede he was on to something.

The case reminded me of what is probably the presentation I have seen used by others more times in my life:I made it in 2003 for an SAP event(I weighed more than a hundred kilos at the time 🙂 and used the example of Dick Fosbury, the 1960s high jumper who changed the sport with what became known as the Fosbury flop. It took him five years to develop the technique, but when Fosbury won gold at the 1968 Mexico Olympics, U.S. high jump team coach Payton Jordansaid:

“Kids imitate champions. If they try to imitate Fosbury, we’ll wipe out a whole generation of high jumpers, because they’ll all end up with broken necks.”

Twelve years later, however, 13 of the 16 finalists in the Olympic high jump event were using the Fosbury style, and there were no broken necks. What had happened? In reality, the backward style of jumping had been known for some time, but could not be developed because the fall, being on a sandy pool or a low mattress, was likely to cause significant injury. By changing the landing surface to deep foam mattresses, Fosbury realized that he could be much less orthodox in his jump and fall without injuring himself on the mattress, and decided to test and refine his style, with the results known to all.

Another case of sporting innovation is the so-called Spanish style of javelin throwing, usually attributed to athlete Miguel de la Quadra-Salcedo, and taken from a Basque sport called palanka jaurtiteka, which involves throwing a heavy metal bar. But the innovation clashed with the regulations: theIAAF, in view of the supposed danger that this technique could pose to the public when used by inexperienced throwers, modified the rules of the discipline on two occasions, specifying that neither the thrower nor the javelin could be facing away from the throwing area at any time. The record of 112 meters achieved by de la Quadra-Salcedo, when the record at that time was 81 meters, was never approved. Beware of regulators: they will often refuse to accept certain innovations, citing all kinds of dangers… simply because it is easier to avoid disruption.

The conclusions are clear: first of all, it’s safe to say that when you come up with an innovation, you’re going to face opposition. It took Dick Fosbury more than five years to perfect his idea and be allowed to use it at competition level. Moreover, we know that for those around you, the alternative of continuing to do things the same way will always be easier. But we also know that innovations of this kind tend to be efficient and to have a knock-on effect, whether we are talking about high jumping, decarbonization, the internet or machine learning.

These types of stories can be an inspiration when it comes to dealing with changes that enable disruption. Right now, the biggest change facing our society is the need for urgent decarbonization. And for many companies, it is machine learning and artificial intelligence on a scale that allows the development of algorithms with unparalleled parameters.

Incorporating technological developments into value chains can be done incrementally, i.e., doing the same thing we did before their arrival but faster or at lower costs; or disruptively, completely changing the way of doing things. In the first case we will obtain some improvements… but it will be by radically restructuring the value chain, that companies create a sustainable competitive advantage, changing the way things will be done in the future, changes that the competition will try to imitate.

You can do without people and replace what they used to do with algorithms or machines, progressively cutting costs and replicate steps and processes, but the important thing is to understand that technology is a sufficient differential that there comes a time when you have to rethink everything, to reinvent how things are done. What a great time to teach at a business school…

(En español, aquí)

This post was previously published on MEDIUM.COM.


Join The Good Men Project as a Premium Member today.

All Premium Members get to view The Good Men Project with NO ADS.

A $50 annual membership gives you an all access pass. You can be a part of every call, group, class and community.
A $25 annual membership gives you access to one class, one Social Interest group and our online communities.
A $12 annual membership gives you access to our Friday calls with the publisher, our online community.

Register New Account

Log in if you wish to renew an existing subscription.

Choose your subscription level

By completing this registration form, you are also agreeing to our Terms of Service which can be found here.

Need more info? A complete list of benefits is here.

Photo credit: iStock.com

The post What Business Leaders Can Learn From Athletes About Innovation appeared first on The Good Men Project.