Olympic Innovation

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.
-F. Scott Fitzgerald

That’s the quote with which Richard Lester and Michael Piore open their outstanding book Innovation: The Missing Dimension. The opposing ideas that they discuss throughout the book are interpretation and analysis. They argue that both are necessary components of innovation, but that they require completely different skills and mindsets to manage. Here is how they describe the issue:

In new product development, interpretation and analysis exist in perpetual tension. This tension is inevitable and unavoidable, and we believe it is the central management problem that innovative businesses must confront. The tension… springs from many sources. Interpretation proceeds through conversations over time – within and among the various communities that contribute to new product development and between the designers and the customers who use those new products and incorporate them into their lives. Analysis, on the other hand, takes place “outside of time” – at the point when a product must be optimized according to well-defined and articulated objectives.

This line of thinking is very similar to the argument that Roberto Verganti puts forward in Design-Driven Innovation – and I’ll talk about those links later this week. Today, however, I want to use this dichotomy to talk about another perpetual question that arises every four years:

Here’s an idea: sports where there is an unequivocal winner, like skiing and ice hockey, are primarily analytical, while the judged sports are primarily interpretive. As a consequence, they have different forms of innovation, and it explains in part why they seem so different to us.

In the analytical sports, who wins is reasonably straightforward. If you get down the mountain fastest, or skate the fastest, or score the most goals, you win. In these sports, the problems are well-defined, and most of the innovations are primarily equipment-based. The well-defined problems lead to engineering-style solutions. So you have innovations like this:

The innovation there is the clapskate – a blade where the back detaches at the end of the stride. This allows the full blad to be in contact for a longer period of time, which transfers more power from the skater’s legs to the ice. So you go faster.

In the analytical sports, these type of innovations lead to continually faster speeds, or longer jumps, but in the main, the sport still looks the same. Interestingly, most of the innovations don’t come from the athletes.

It’s a different story in the interpetive events. In these sports, the athletes themselves are coming up with the innovations. As they do this, they remake the sport. Dominic Basulto has a great post about the nature of innovation in snowboarding – where the judges often don’t understand the difficulty of new moves.

He includes this quote from a WSJ article called When Snowboarders Baffle the Judges – it explains why Shaun White showed off all his new jumps in events leading up to the Olympics:

The emphasis on innovation this season has snowboarders grappling with whether they can trust the judges to score their new moves fairly at first sight. Many top riders, including Mr. White, are haunted by the prospect of becoming the next Jonny Moseley, the free-spirited American mogul-skiing champion who failed to medal at Salt Lake City in 2002 despite his debut of a revolutionary trick he dubbed the “Dinner Roll.” Though he executed it perfectly and the move has since elicited higher marks for difficulty, he received lower scores for his jumps at the time than his competitors got for their tried-and-true twists.

“Tricks can be deceiving,” Mr. Moseley says. “I worked twice as hard to be able to perform that in the Olympics than anyone else.” Mr. White says he could have saved his surprise moves for Vancouver to increase the “wow” factor and prevent copycats from stealing his thunder, but he decided it was more important “to educate the judges.

That sounds a lot like the conversations between stakeholders that Lester & Piore describe, doesn’t it? As the athletes in interpretive events innovate, the look and feel of the sport changes dramatically. The last interpretive-style innovation in an analytical-style sport that I can think of is the Fosbury Flop in high jumping. Dick Fosbury actually came up with a completely new way to do the high jump. I can’t think of a similar shift in skiing, or the other more ‘objective’ sports. Verganti and Lester & Piore all conclude that interpretive processes are more likely to create radical innovations. We see the same outcomes in the Olympic sports. The innovation in snowboarding is definitely more radical than the innovations we see in downhill skiing. This is a useful thing to keep in mind when we’re managing innovation within our organisations.

I’m not sure if this resolves the question of whether or not ice dancing is a real sport. But I think we should embrace the Lester & Piore argument – both analysis and interpretation are important, and we need to be comfortable with both to be genuinely innovative. We need to have both skills within our firms to innovate successfully. So maybe we need to embrace both forms of sport, and both forms of sporting innovation in the Olympics as well.

NOTE: This article talks about innovation at the Winter Olympics, and it’s all analytical!

(Speed skating picture from flickr/BWJones, snowboarding picture from flickr/prosto photos, both under Creative Commons Licenses)

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

7 thoughts on “Olympic Innovation

  1. Like the sport application!

    I was watching ski jumping on TV the other day and was amazed when Silje told me that they get points for both distance AND style. To me it seemed like the last sport that would have an interpretive element. Though maybe that’s my Australian winter sport logic at work…

  2. Sports and innovation have a really odd relationship, don’t they?

    Ice dancing isn’t (to my untrained eye) very innovative, and I think the fans of ice dancing like it that way. Hip-hop ice dancing is something I’d personally like to see, but it’ll be a long time before there’s a whiff of a chance we’d see that at an Olympics.

    Bicycle racing (one of my favorite sports) is analytically innovative… up to a point. You can have all the carbon fiber components you like, as long as your bicycle still looks mostly like a bicycle. No recumbents or aerodynamic fairings allowed in the Tour de France.

    I wonder: would bicycle racing and ice dancing be more or less popular if their products were more innovative?

  3. Sports & innovation really do have an odd relationship Gavin. My favourite sports innovation story is still the one where Gordie Howe broke a stick, then took a shot with it and was amazed at how fast the puck went – and that was the start of curved hockey sticks!

    I would’ve agreed with you about ice dancing, but then I watched some last night after I wrote this post. I hadn’t seen any since I think the first Olympics that had it. The skating and moves (especially the lifts) in ice dancing are now MUCH better than they used to be. They actually did a few things I’ve never seen before. So overall, I would say that they are advancing at a pretty good clip actually…

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