A Flop is Not a Failure

Why innovation thrives on being able to reframe

A Flop is Not a Failure

GUEST POST from John Bessant

Mexico City, Olympic Games, 1968. The stadium is packed, the wider world looks on via TV coverage. Everywhere there’s an air of expectancy but also an awareness that at such high altitude it’s going to be hard for athletes to beat their best. Records are there to be broken, you have to hope for something special.

And in the high jump event they weren’t disappointed. The record for men’s high jump had hovered around 2.23 m for several years. But a young 21-year-old was about to change that; Dick Fosbury, representing the USA broke this with a height of 2.24 m and won the gold medal.

What was so spectacular was not just the achievement but the way it was accomplished. Unlike other athletes who did the (apparently obvious) thing of running and then jumping over the bar, swinging one leg behind the other, Fosbury paused at the moment of jumping, turned his back and flopped over it backwards. Why would anyone do that?

Fosbury had an answer — he’d been working on it for five years before his Mexico success. He’d been frustrated with the limits of the traditional ‘straddle’ jump and experimented with alternative ways of getting over the bar, finally hitting on and perfecting his backwards approach. The big advantage of doing this was that it gave him a lower and different centre of gravity and allowed for more clearance over the bar.

The ‘Fosbury flop’ as it quickly became known opened up new possibilities for the sport; within ten years it had become the dominant mode for all jumpers and helped move the world record to 2.45 m which was set in 1993 by Javier Sotomayor. These days anyone attempting the high jump has come to resemble the ‘fish flopping on the deck of a boat’ as one newspaperman described Fosbury’s Mexico model.

John Bessant Doodly Image

What Fosbury’s feat reminds us of is the power of reframing in innovation. Innovation can take place anywhere along a continuum from doing what we do better — incremental — to doing something completely different — radical. And it can cover what we offer the world — product or service — and the ways we create a deliver that offering — process. That gives us plenty to keep us busy in our innovation day.

But sometimes we can reframe, look at what we’re doing in a different way, identify novel approaches. For example we can rethink the positioning of our innovation — opening up a new market segment or moving into a new geographical area. There’s plenty of learning and pivoting involved in doing that — as Netflix discovered when it began to extend its offer from the USA to Canada and then Europe and beyond.

We can be more radical and change the story we tell and who we tell it to — think about Starbucks and others and the way they repositioned coffee from a simple hot drink to something consumed in as many varieties and combinations as fine wine. Or Haagen Dasz and others who reframed the idea of ice cream as a sensuous adult pleasure rather than as a treat for kids on hot days. Or Henry Ford, bringing the motor car from the small luxury goods market to being a ‘car for Everyman at a price every man can afford’.

This kind of reframing opens up new possibilities but poses new challenges. Just as Fosbury and his followers had to rethink so much of their approach and learn new tricks (not least about where and how to land!) so this kind of position reframing requires major modifications to our product/service offering and our delivery processes.

Think about low-cost airlines — if your main idea is to offer flights at half the price of your competitors, you’ll quickly find out how fast you can lose money. The only way you can make that model work, selling seats to a market who otherwise couldn’t afford to fly will be to radically change your processes, stripping costs and complexity out of everything from booking to check-in, to boarding right through to turnaround time management. Master those tricks and you not only have a viable business model, you’ve got something which the rest of the pack have to catch up with.

But reframing doesn’t stop there; business model innovation is a very hot topic these days and at heart it is finding ways to change the game by replacing one business model with an alternative. Business models set out the architecture through which an innovation can deliver value– for which market segments, with which value proposition and so on. Business model innovation is all about replacing that system with a different better one.

We’ve got plenty of examples of this happening — think about Uber or AirBnB and how they’ve not only become successful new models themselves but also offered templates for others to use in different fields. Or what Spotify and the music streaming services have done to entertainment by changing the model from ownership to rental.

It’s the same with capital goods makers like Caterpillar or Rolls Royce. Instead of selling products on a one-off basis they now offer the functionality of those products to their customers on a rental basis, charging them for ‘power by the hour’ for example.

Once again such reframing isn’t trivial, it drives innovation in product and service and it requires major rethinking about the processes which create and deliver such service. If Rolls-Royce, General Electric and others are being paid for the number of hours their engines are keeping airliners in the air then they need to work hard to ensure that they are reliable and well-maintained. So, they’ve had to innovate in their products to improve reliability through intelligent condition monitoring, they’ve had to install skilled staff at airports making sure engines are quickly and regularly checked and serviced and they’ve had to rethink their financial and support operations to reflect the changed approach.

Beyond all of this comes the possibility of completely reframing the whole approach to innovation — innovation model innovation. Sometimes it’s not enough just to tweak and adapt the product or service development pathway or revise arrangements for process improvement. Sometimes there’s a need for a radical rethink.

A good example of this is the experience of Procter and Gamble and their emerging response to the opportunities and challenges posed by ‘open innovation’. Faced with a world in which ‘not all the smart people work for you’ they reframed their approach to creating thousands of new products from one which had dominated a century and a half of growth through Research and Develop. They replaced it with a new strategic approach to innovation, with the deceptively simple label of ‘Connect and develop’.

The challenge was easy to express and CEO Alan Lafley did so in 2000 when he launched the program. In the future P&G would get 50% of its innovations from outside as distinct from the previous model which was 100% home grown. Simple to say but it has taken then 25 years to turn the challenge into a viable and successful new model. On the way they’ve had to re-engineer so much, finding ways to identify and filter external ideas, to assimilate them and deploy that new knowledge in new directions for the business and simultaneously to make better use of knowledge which P&G had created and then never found a home for.

There’s a useful Greek word — paradigm — which can be used to describe the way we see the world. It’s like the mental spectacles through which we see which problems to focus on and which solutions might be relevant. Change the spectacles — reframe to a new paradigm — and everything looks different, opening up new and fruitful possibilities. It’s an idea which has been put forward by Thomas Kuhn the philosopher of science to explain how our thinking progress follows a pattern of ‘punctuated equilibrium’ — long periods of working within a particular frame followed by a transition to a new way of looking and thinking.

Paradigm innovation is powerful and influential; it changes the world. Which might be a fitting epilogue to the fulsome obituaries which have appeared in response to the sad news of Dick Fosbury’s death last month. He was a true innovator and he changed the way athletes thought about their challenge, helping them aim and reach higher.

Image Credits: Eugene Register-Guard (From the Medford Star-Tribune, 1964), John Bessant (Doodly)

You can find a podcast version of this here and a video version here

And if you’d like to learn with me take a look at my online course here

Subscribe to Human-Centered Change & Innovation WeeklySign up here to join 17,000+ leaders getting Human-Centered Change & Innovation Weekly delivered to their inbox every week.

This entry was posted in Innovation on by .

About John Bessant

Originally a chemical engineer, John Bessant has been active in the field of research and consultancy in technology and innovation management for over 40 years. He is Emeritus Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Exeter and also has visiting appointments at the universities of Stavanger, Norway and Erlangen-Nuremburg, Germany. Author of over 30 books and 200 articles, you can find out more here: www.johnbessant.org

2 thoughts on “A Flop is Not a Failure

  1. Pingback: Top 100 Innovation and Transformation Articles of 2023 | Human-Centered Change and Innovation

  2. Pingback: Learning About Innovation – From a Skateboard? | Human-Centered Change and Innovation

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *