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Meet Dick Fosbury. Checking in at 1.93m tall as a modest rookie sportsman in the 1960s, Dick had tried out a number of sporting challenges, but showed little promise in any of them.

Undeterred, he went in search of greatness. What followed was a pioneering journey which made him a household name and an innovator whose discovery still carries his name today.

Fosbury’s fascination with jumping higher than any other athlete led to an innovative approach which had never been attempted before. Harnessing a law of physics Fosbury worked out that he could beat the competitors by jumping backwards and keeping a lower ‘centre of mass’ than traditional high jumpers could ever manage by jumping forwards over the bar. If you’re interested, check out this short video on YouTube.

At the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, Fosbury won the gold medal and set a new Olympic record at 2.24m, displaying the potential of the new technique. Despite the initial sceptical reactions from the high jump community, the ‘Fosbury flop’ quickly gained acceptance. Four years later, almost all competitors at the 1972 Olympics had adopted his technique.

My fascination with Fosbury
So why does this matter? I’ve become fascinated by Fosbury and his innovation for two reasons. First, one of my daughters has set her sights on winning high jump competitions, and is using the Fosbury Flop technique to do so.

Second, Fosbury’s innovation is a very handy metaphor for a topic I’m spending a lot of my life working on at the moment: helping CEOs and CMOs to tackle the challenges they face with digital transformation.

Digital is fascinating for many reasons: first and foremost, there is no blueprint, and digital demands rapid innovation. While we can look to the GAFA pioneers – Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon – to understand how to build world leading digital businesses, enterprises born in the analogue age have unique challenges.

Legacy processes, technologies and databases – coupled with outdated business models and management approaches – form formidable obstacles, which can be sidestepped by fleet-of-foot challengers like Fosbury.

Three points come to mind here:

1. Creative problem solving

Being the biggest and best resourced is no guarantee of success in the digital age. Just consider how many venture capital-backed challenger business have made the headlines, won share and created a major headache for incumbent market leaders. Uber. Just Eat. Monzo. They all share a desire to understand the customer need, and invent solutions which meet those needs quickly, without the shackles of established processes and the straightjacket of conformist thinking.

2. Going backwards makes a lot of sense
This may sound absurd to you, but just think about it. As human beings, we have always struggled with predicting the future. We have always been very good at recording the past – tracking which factors led to our present condition – and piecing together the evidence to build a hypothesis about cause and effect.

Getting specific here – if we want to best serve our customers with the right message, delivered at the right time in their purchase cycle, on the most effective channel, at the lowest cost – it’s a very smart idea to examine closely the touchpoints and influencers our customers connect with before making their purchase decisions, and use the same channels to influence future brand and performance marketing investment.

3. Trial and error
It took Fosbury many years to perfect his technique, and deliver his Olympic record breaking jump. It took his competitors just months to copy his technique.

If you want to develop market leading solutions and have your competitors catching up, an agile mindset, which tolerates mistakes and expects rapid iteration, is key to innovation and success.

Rob Thurner

Rob is Head of Digital Media at Liberty Communications

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