What the Super Bowl Means for Innovation

My wife can pronounce “Tchoupitoulas.” She loves red beans and rice. She peels crawfish faster than you can toss popcorn in your mouth, and last Sunday night, when the New Orleans Saints (the American football team) won the Super Bowl, she and a million other New Orlineans saw a long-held dream realized.

Nearly half of my readers live outside the U.S. and have little interest in the tactical intricacies of American football. But this game has many lessons to teach everyone. So over the next couple of days, I thought I’d distill the four-hour event into three critical lessons that are immediately relevant to successfully leading any innovations – new ventures, products, social movements – that matter to you today.

Perfect past breakthroughs

"A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it."

- Max Planck

Sunday’s game pitted the two most accurate quarterbacks in the world against each other. One side was led by Peyton Manning, to whom the media has been affixing labels like “greatest ever” and “grand master” for his ability to place a football precisely where it needs to be on the field, even as muscular 250-pound opponents are pouncing. On the other side, the less-appreciated Drew Brees, who has surprised experts over the past four years as he has perfected the inhuman precision of his ball delivery.

Quarterbacks, as Sunday’s game exemplifies, have become the center, the generals, the heart of the American football team.

But before 1913, we had no quarterbacks. Instead, football players played a game that looked more like rugby with protective body pads. They ran and made short, underhanded pass-offs to each other.

In 1913, in a game that would transform American football forever, the football team from Notre Dame University took on Army. The lesser-known Notre Dame arrived to the grand Army field wide-eyed, seeming in awe at the chance to play with one of the nation's best. Army expected Notre Dame to serve as easy practice for their less-skilled players.

But no one expected that Notre Dame would come armed with a disruptive strategy. Instead of passing the ball underhanded, as all football players did, a small band of Notre Dame players had practiced passing the ball overhead: winding up, arm stretched in the air, and tossing it high into the air, to be caught many yards ahead by a teammate. For an engaging history of this game and its implication, read “Notre Dame and the Game that Changed Football: How Jesse Harper Made the Forward Pass a Weapon and Knute Rockne a Legend” by Frank Maggio (http://www.amazon.com/Notre-Dame-Game-Changed-Football/dp/078672014X#noop).

This small tactical change – from underhand to overhand – opened up an entirely new dimension of competition to American football that over the next 100 years became an obsession. Millions of young players started practicing, tossing the ball overhead with their fathers on their front lawns. High school teams started changing their formations and plays to leverage this newly discovered approach. And after a century, players and coaches worked to perfect the overhead pass, their work captured in the precision of Manning and Brees.

This pattern – the underdog innovates, others copy and perfect – has always defined the pulse of industries, areas of science, and sports. During the 1928 Olympics, Dick Fosbury shocked the “experts” by jumping over the high bar backward, winning the gold. Michael Jordan invented the fade-away. Dell decided to sell computers directly to consumers. Toys “R” Us built a toy store with wide aisles. Someone challenges the accepted way, creates an innovation, and the world then undergoes a long period to perfect the new approach.

Ask yourself the questions below to see how you can break accepted rules and get in front of your competitors:

1.    Do you have a new way of doing things?

2.    Can you perfect that approach faster than your competition?

3.    What accepted tactics are ripe for innovation now?

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