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Non-Linear Change: An Example

Richard Pascale has given us an effective illustration of nonlinear change: the history of the high-jump event at the Olympics.

There have been four distinct “business models” in the high jump. Each enabled athletes to achieve breakout performance.

Early on, the “scissors” style dominated; it was much like hurdling. As all high jumpers were using the scissors approach, the name of the game was being the best at scissors. The high jumpers were operating in Box 1. If they were businesspeople, they would have been competing on cost, market share, and margins.

One day, someone changed the rules of the game by inventing the “western roll.” (High jumpers launched and landed on the same foot and kept their backs to the bar.) The western roll was the style for twenty-five years until someone changed the rules again, introducing the “eastern roll,” a.k.a. the “straddle.” (Now high jumpers launched and landed on opposite feet and faced the bar.) Then, in the 1968 Olympics, former gymnast Dick Fosbury broke the Olympic record by three inches, creating a third discontinuous change. (The “Fosbury flop” involved a straight approach, jumping with both feet and twisting the body 180 degrees, like a gymnast, looking away from the bar.)

These nonlinear shifts exemplify Box 3 thinking. Each transformed the high-jump “industry.” In each case, the inventive high jumpers were not just managing the present, they were creating the future.

Because the future is uncertain, executives cannot predict it. They can only prepare to address its challenges and capture its opportunities.

Some of the key questions executives need to address in this context are:

- How do we identify the non-linear shifts and market discontinuities (e.g., fundamental shifts in technology, customers, competitors, lifestyle/demographics, globalization, regulations, etc.) that could transform our industry?

- How do we analyze the opportunities and risks, as a result of our understanding of market discontinuities?

- How can we create new growth platforms with a view to exploit the market discontinuities?

- What are our core competencies and how can we leverage them in the growth platforms?

- What new competencies do we need? How do we build or acquire them?

- How do we allocate resources to support growth?

- What kind of organizational DNA must we have in order to anticipate and respond to changes on a continual basis?

Don't get caught offguard by your competitor's "Fosbury flop" and, by the same token, make sure you have some foam to cushion your fall if you're going to try one!

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Comments

Strategic innovation in established companies is incredibly difficult to achieve. And your contextual framing of the issues is spot on. You may be interested to know of an organization dedicated to exploring the 'how' of managing the present while creating the future.

The non-profit Business Innovation Factory is a community of innovators collaborating to explore and test better ways to deliver value.

We believe that the inherent difficulties of achieving business model innovation can be surmounted by using the state of Rhode Island as a real-world experimental test-bed.

In effect, this provides organizations with a platform to test new ideas collaboratively with other like-minded organizations, outside the boundaries of their current way of doing things.

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