Home / Opinion / Columns /  A lesson from an innovator who leapt where others feared to tread

The 19th Olympics held in Mexico City in October 1968 had many firsts to its credit. It was the first Olympics to be held in Latin America or a Spanish-speaking country. It was also the first instance when electronic timekeeping was used for all the events and the first to telecast them in colour. George Foreman, the legendary boxer, won his heavyweight title and gold medal here, as did fellow African-American athlete Tommie Smith, who posed with the iconic ‘Black Power’ salute to herald the civil rights struggle. However, among the many US gold medallists, a 21-year-old student, Richard Fosbury not only broke the world record in high jump, but also altered the game.

Before the 1968 games, the default method of attempting the high jump was the ‘straddle’ technique, in which the athlete ran towards the bar and powered his jump using one leg while leading with the other. Much like we would clear a small hedge or wall. This favoured burly muscular builds, like Valeriy Brumel of the Soviet Union who held the record until 1964. Fosbury turned that strategy head over heels, literally. At the age of 16, he had started experimenting with a new technique in which the jumper would lope to the bar in an angular run-up and lead with his head instead of legs, clearing one’s head, shoulder, torso and lastly the legs. Unlike a jump, this was literally a ‘flop’ over the bar.

Predictably, this new technique was rubbished by many status quoists, including Fosbury’s own school coach, but the results started speaking for themselves as he continued to win in US tournaments with his unconventional style, right into the selection trials for the 1968 Olympics. In Mexico City, not only did he break the world record and bag gold, he also changed the game forever. Between 1972 and 2000, the ‘Fosbury Flop’ was used by 34 of the 36 medallists, making it a true game changer. But the real genius of this technique was not his focus on how to cross the bar, but in observing what changes were taking place in the landing surface.

By the early 1960s, colleges and stadiums had started replacing the traditional landing pits of sand and sawdust with rubber-foam mattresses. This let iconoclastic athletes try radically different approaches to crossing the bar, because a foam landing was far more forgiving than a sandpit. While seasoned athletes were training hard to cross the bar, an amateur picked up a weak signal of change and made the most of it.

The world of business too is replete with examples of weak signals being picked up by contrarian entrepreneurs that giant conglomerates with multi-million-dollar budgets for market research and development missed. Whether it was an upstart in the US who claimed he could sell books online or an Indian entrepreneur who discovered it was consumer cash-flow that kept shampoo from going mainstream and then drove mass adoption with one-rupee sachets, weak signals are often lost on a large organization’s market radar. That is why dominant players in the aforementioned fields did not capture the ideas that proved transformative.

Latent demand or early trends show up as weak signals that are missed too often by big companies. It is not that they don’t realize they have blind spots; unfortunately, in most cases, two issues cloud their early warning radar. One is mindset related. The other, structural.

The mindset problem is relatively simple to understand, if not to fix. Most research begins with a hypothesis based on anecdotal data or some insightful observation (usually by a self-styled futurist in the organisation), which the research team then tries to validate post facto. This typically results in situating an appreciation, rather than appreciating the situation. The problem is further compounded when existing dogmas are challenged by weak signals.

It is not that Barnes & Noble didn’t see what Amazon was doing, or established car makers did not see Tesla exploding old tenets of car manufacturing, but status quoists smothered those signals when they were weak because these threatened them (and they could).

The second issue is structural. Prescient diviners of weak signals and advocates of radical solutions will by definition have initial failures, and despite lip service, failures are seldom rewarded in corporates. This creates a culture where even courageous, talented leaders tend to gravitate towards the safe path of bureaucracy than the risky path of ‘intrapreneurship’. After all, who wants to be the one being humiliated in a review for the failure of an audacious plan implemented on the ground instead of the one doing the nitpicking of why the plan won’t work from behind a desk?

The hypocrisy of extolling courageous failures in monthly townhall speeches but punishing them in annual appraisals is a key structural reason for businesses missing major opportunities and threats.

The exquisiteness of the Fosbury Flop is that it originated not from the athlete production factories of the Soviet Union or the US, but from a 21-year-old amateur who thought differently. Someone who literally put his head in the game and paid the price for failures. Fosbury injured his vertebrae while developing his technique, but still persevered until he broke both the record and dogma. Aged 75, Fosbury lives to see his legacy every time a high jump record is broken. There’s a wider lesson in it for us.

Raghu Raman is former CEO of the National Intelligence Grid, distinguished fellow at Observer Research Foundation and author of ‘Everyman’s War’.

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