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  • 02.10.10

What the Super Bowl Means for Innovation

My wife can pronounce “Tchoupitoulas.” She loves red beans and rice.

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.

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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.

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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:

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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?

About the author

Author of Outthink the Competition business strategy keynote speaker and CEO of Outthinker, a strategic innovation firm, Kaihan Krippendorff teaches executives, managers and business owners how to seize opportunities others ignore, unlock innovation, and build strategic thinking skills. Companies such as Microsoft, Citigroup, and Johnson & Johnson have successfully implemented Kaihan’s approach because their executive leadership sees the value of his innovative technique.

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