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Changes in our external environment can often open up new opportunties for innovation, if only we have eyes to see them. A case in point is the sport of high jumping.

Changes in our external environment can often open up new opportunties for innovation – if only we have eyes to see them. A case in point is the sport of high jumping.

Up until the 1960s, most elite high jumpers used similar techniques – the straddle, the western roll or the scissors-jump – all characterized by giving the jumper the opportunity to land on his or her feet (or at least land carefully) after the jump was completed. This was essential to prevent injury because most landing surfaces at the time were hard sandpits, sawdust or low piles of matting. But during the early 1960s, the advent of softer, deeper foam matting for jumpers eliminated this concern for safe landings; the sport of high jump was now ripe for innovation.;.

Enter Dick Fosbury. As 16 year-old high jumper from Medford, Oregon, Fosbury was a below-average jumper who used the straddle technique. Hungry to improve, he began experimenting with his technique and over the next two years, he improved his high jump height from 5 feet to 6 feet 7 inches. His secret? A new technique that allowed Fosbury to go over the bar backwards, head-first, curving his body over the bar and kicking his legs up in the air at the end of the jump. This required him to land on his back, but with the recent advent of deep foam matting, he was able to land safely. Fosbury’s new technique was dubbed “the Fosbury Flop.”;.

Fosbury enrolled at Oregon State University in 1965 and by the Olympic year of 1968, he used his new technique to win the NCAA championships and the Olympic Trials. At the 1968 Mexico City Summer Olympics, he won the gold medal and set a new Olympic record at 7 feet 4.25 inches, displaying the potential of the new technique. Despite the initial skeptical reactions from the high jumping community, the “Fosbury Flop” quickly gained acceptance.;.

Here’s how Oregon State University’s Alumni magazine described Fosbury’s Olympic moment:;.

In the summer between his junior and senior years, 1968, Oregon Stater Dick Fosbury won the high-jump gold medal at the Olympic Games in Mexico City.;.

Any medal won at the Olympics is an outstanding achievement, but this particular medal was and is unique in the annals of American Sports.;.

Most significant, however, from the standpoint of sports history and the Olympic drama of the moment, was the way in which Fosbury won this event…by demonstrating to the work a new and different way of conquering high bars…up-and-over backwards, knees, chest and face to the sky, the “Fosbury Flop!”;.

Journalists covering the game went nuts over the new technique, devoting more space and adjectives to the young man from Corvallis than to most of the other individual medal winners. They realized immediately they were watching a sport being completely revolutionized.;.

“The high jump (competition) provided a sensation of a special and totally unexpected kind. Dick Fosbury, USA, showed an astonished world a brand-new way to jump better and higher. He invented and perfected it himself and there’s and indication that many jumpers, novices and world class alike, will begin copying what has been named the ‘Fosbury Flop.’ It isn’t easy to describe in words…one has to see it in action. Fosbury’s new Olympic record speaks a clear language. This flop is no flop.”;.

In a later interview with Jody Zarkos of the Sun Valley (ID) Guide, Fosbury expressed surprise of the impact of his innovative technique:;.

“I adapted an antiquated style and modernized it to something that was efficient. I didn’t know anyone else in the world would be able to use it and I never imagined it would revolutionize the event,”.

During the years following Fosbury’s gold medal performance, the flop became the dominant style of the event for both male and female jumpers and remains so today.

Conclusion

Here’s the takeaway: Sometimes it takes a change in the external environment – in this case, the advent of softer, deeper foam mating in the landing pit – for innovation opportunities to emerge. Dick Fosbury took advantage of this change to give the world his famous innovative “Fosbury Flop.”

What’s changing in your enviroment? How can you leverage it to create disruptive innovation in your market, profession or industry?

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