Media coverage of the 2016 Summer Olympics featured awe-inspiring performances by top athletes like Simone Biles and Michael Phelps. It also gave credit to the many coaches and teammates who, laboring tirelessly behind the cameras, helped those extraordinary individuals reach the pinnacle of their respective sports.
But there is another story that should be getting just as much attention -- and, in practical terms, it's a story with particular relevance to your own daily challenges and triumphs at work. This is the story of innovation.
Olympians, innovation, and you . . . really? Absolutely. Without innovation, Simone Biles would not be executing maneuvers that no other competitor, male or female, can even contemplate. And Michael Phelps would not have left Rio with his career-topping 23rd gold medal, a record of dominance that makes him the most decorated gold medalist in Olympic history.
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Phelps' achievement, by the way, harks back to ancient history. The previous record-holder -- Leonides of Rhodes -- lived over 2,000 years ago. Even if your personal athletic career involved nothing more challenging than watching from your livingroom couch as those best of the best competed live in Rio, you should consider how their successes suggested powerful ways to achieve creative break-throughs in your own performance.
By following a few Olympic-level innovation principles, you too can "medal" in today's grueling workplace competitions:
1. Seek group support for your individual creativity.
“At this point, nobody beats Simone Biles,” observed Nastia Liukin, a 2008 Gold Medalist. Coach Aimee Boorman noted that Biles’ routines require less running and allow her to do more tumbling than other gymnasts' routines do. It is this innovative combination of roundoff, back handspring, double layout, half-turn and landing that makes Biles the world’s best.
Oh, and there is the Stag Sissone move Biles adds after landing -- a jump that Boorman described as a “simple skill” that “adds to bonus.” Simple, maybe, but no one else does it. Where most competitors won by fractions of a point, Biles won by fully one or two points.
Such dominance has its roots in the training regimen developed by the U.S. women’s national team coordinator, Martha Karolyi. Earlier and less successful gymnastics “teams” were really just collections of individuals. But Karolyi manages to inspire both individual achievement and a strong commitment to the group. One reinforces the other.
“We were expected to compete as a team overseas, [but] you’re still an individual,” said Rhonda Faehn, senior vice president of the women’s team and a former gymnast. At a young age, Biles started honing her individual skills at Karolyi’s remote ranch, where athletes bunk and train together, and where spotty cell-phone service helps minimize the outside-world intrusions that distract from these gymnasts developing close relationships with their teammates.
2. Build on the innovation that others have already discovered.
Michael Phelps embodies a unique blend of physical endowments, exquisite technique and determination. Less obvious are the decades of innovation that prepared the way for his dominance. Take his mastery of the underwater dolphin kick that has so often propelled him to the medalists’ podium.
Phelps has benefited from innovations that go back at least to David Armbruster, who, from 1917 to 1958 coached the University of Iowa swim team. According to the International Swimming Hall of Fame, Armbruster first saw a demonstration of the dolphin kick technique in 1911 and then in the 1930s started encouraging his swimmers to use it instead of the traditional frog kick. Others played a role, too, in the development of the kick, including the physicist Volney Wilson, who was a swimming enthusiast as well as a contributor to the World War II project that produced the first atomic bomb.
More recently, a Johns Hopkins professor of mechanical engineering took an interest in analyzing the stroke and lent his technical support to the U.S. swim team. TV viewers only see the athletes striving for greatness for two intense weeks, but all of this history and behind-the-scenes activity is actually a bigger part of the story.
3. Dream, and then work like crazy.
Daniel James Brown, in his beautiful book, The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, recounted a scene in which the University of Washington coach conceived the audacious goal of defeating the top U.S. rowing teams and pulling all the way through to the 1936 Olympic Gold Medal in Munich.
Unsurprisingly, years of all-consuming toil separated that inspiring reverie on the banks of Lake Washington and the historic moment that the Americans became world champions under Adolph Hitler's baleful gaze. But the excitement of victory often eclipses all of the effort that led to it. You should never forget that it's effort that turns dreams into reality. While many breakthroughs begin with an idea, the ones that make a difference are realized through disciplined practice. Go ahead and dream, but then get down to work.
The 2016 Summer Olympics, of course, are now over. But, as we watched the closing ceremonies in Rio, we hoped other Americans would give a little thought to the three questions we did:
- Who are the teammates who can push you to find that next level of performance?
- What are the innovations that you can build on?
- How much work will it really take to turn your idea into results?
By acting on your answers, you can be the office Olympian who wins the workplace gold.