Merge's Blog

To foster innovation, keep negativity at bay

bigstock-high-jump-in-track-and-field-33491909In 1964, Dick Fosbury revolutionized the world of high-jumping by turning the sport upside down … literally!  Until then, athletes used either the straddle technique (in which the jumper lifts his legs individually over the bar while facing down) or the less popular upright scissors method (in which he runs upright towards the bar and lifts his straight legs over one at a time).  But Fosbury did it differently – he went over the bar, head-first and on his back, curving his body and kicking his legs up in the air at the end of the jump.  The “Fosbury Flop”, as it came to be known, is why he not only took the gold medal at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City but also set a new Olympic record of 7 feet 4-1/4 inches. His success silenced the initial skeptics in the high-jumping community, but the true proof came in the following years – seventy percent of the athletes in the Munich 1972 games used the Flop, and that number rose to eighty percent by 1980.  Today, it is the most popular technique in the sport of high-jumping.

It’s worth noting that Fosbury was mocked and ridiculed when he first starting using his new technique; in fact, one newspaper at the time captioned him the “World’s Laziest High Jumper” and another said that he looked like “a fish flopping in a boat” (ergo the name Flop).  Yet Fosbury persevered.  He challenged conventional wisdom, tolerated (and sometimes ignored) the naysayers, and eventually turned the sport of high-jumping on its ear.  My point is that his road to success was fraught with many speed bumps, most of which were created by the negative attitudes of others.

Which is worth keeping mind if you are a leader who is trying to build a culture of innovation in your organization or department.  Unusual and atypical ideas will always bring out the cynics and pessimists in droves.  If you want to create an environment that fosters originality in thought and action, then it’s your job to keep the doubters at bay and to buffer your employees from the skeptics and disparagers.  It’s up to you (and sometimes you may be the only one) to encourage your employees to think unconventionally, laterally, and perhaps even upside down, despite negativity in others.

Well, what do you think?  What does it take to create an environment of creativity and ingenuity?  Where do you draw the line between encouraging innovation and allowing inefficiency?  Please share your thoughts by adding to the Comments below.

8 thoughts on “To foster innovation, keep negativity at bay

  1. Michelle, so nice to hear from you. No I was not at the Leadership Summit that you mentioned, actually was not even aware of it. This year Mazda launched a television commercial in Canada and the United States in which Dick Fosbury is featured as a “game changer” so I suspect that is why he is in the front of so many people’s minds. Perhaps Govindarajan watches TV like I occasionally do 🙂

  2. Thanks Merge. Great analogy as always.

    A similar thing happened in American (and Canadian) football in the 1960s, when the first soccer style kickers came on the scene. Hiring a specialist soccer style kicker to exclusively kick, rather than have a position player that kicks the ball straight on, defied conventional wisdom, and most executives, coaches and players didn’t think it would last. But the fad caught on to the point where it is the accepted method of 100% of teams today – and has been for more than 30 years.

  3. Very cool Jeff! Good to see that innovation is alive and well in the world of sports. What would it take to accomplish the same in the world of business, I wonder …

  4. Merge,

    When Fosbury was developing his flop, Debbie Brill, I believe from BC, invented the Brill Bend, a very similar approach. There was some question at the time as to who was first. Sadly, the American had more publicity, and has therefore been the one who gets the benefit of the doubt on who came up with this approach to the high jump. And maybe that’s a lesson for a future Mega Minute…

  5. Great comment about the Fosbury Flop and the challenges that Dick Fosbury faced when he took the initiative to innovate in a sport that thought that it was already using the best option. In today’s business environment, it’s common for people to think that they are already at the peak of their innovative game until someone steps back and takes a different look at specific issues and develops a new option. It takes out-of-the-box thinking and a willingness to be tolerant of ambiguity to create an innovative culture that is free to try new ideas to solve problems. Part of that is the willingness to change incentive systems to encourage intelligent risk-taking without penalty. When that is done, innovation soon follows.

  6. Great point about how incentive systems need to be changed to encourage intelligent risk-taking Jim. Think about how many times a manager SAYS s/he encourages risk-taking only to then penalize the person later when things go awry. When you send mixed messages, people realize that it’s safer to just take the safe non-innovative route.

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