High jumper Dick Fosbury sets the bar for creative thinking says Graham Goodkind

Dick Fosbury was born in Portland, Oregon, in 1947 and is perhaps an unusual suspect to select as the best source of inspiration that someone could use as their guiding beacon throughout their creative career. 

But for me, Fosbury is just that. 

A Natural Talent

Fosbury showed great talent as a youngster as a high jumper. 

The technique for the high jump that was used in the 1960s was the ‘straddle’ or ‘upright scissors’ method. It was a complex motion, where the athlete went over the bar, in a forward direction, facing down, and essentially lifted his legs individually over the bar.  

But Fosbury found it difficult to co-ordinate all the motions involved, particularly in the straddle method, and therefore began to experiment with other ways of doing the high jump. 

At around this time, the replacement of landing surfaces with foam rubber was becoming common across the US. Sawdust, sand or wood chip had been used previously. 

This helped his thinking.  

Breaking With Convention

Where he ended up was a method of doing the high jump that completely broke all the long-standing conventions of the sport. 

He started jumping backwards, head-first, curving his body over the bar, and kicking his legs up in the air at the end of the jump. Landing on something soft helped. Although one famous sports commentator at the time referred to Fosbury’s attempts as akin to ‘an airborne seizure’ it started to get results. In his junior year, he broke his high school record with a 6ft 3in (1.91 m) jump. The next year he took second place in the state with a 6ft 5.5in (1.969 m) jump.

At college he refined his technique further, developing a curved J-shaped approach run which allowed him to increase his speed whilst the curved steps served to rotate his hips. As his speed increased, so did his elevation. Another key discovery meant that Fosbury adjusted his point of take-off as the bar was raised. 

To give himself more ‘flight time’ he moved his take-off farther and farther away from the bar. The natural tendency is actually the opposite, to be drawn in closer to the bar. At best, the classic straddle jumpers would plant their feet in the same place every time. 

Fosbury didn’t go with the flow. 

His unique style became affectionately known as the ‘Fosbury Flop’.

He won the trials for the 1968 Summer Olympics with a jump of 7ft 1in (2.16m) and made the USA team. At the Games in Mexico City, Fosbury took the gold medal and set a new Olympic record at 7ft 4,25in (2.24m). He was the only person to jump over the bar backwards.  

The Gold Standard

Needless to say, more and more athletes started to learn and use his method, to the extent that now there are no medallists in that sport using any other technique. And Fosbury is now considered as one of the most influential athletes in the history of track and field.

What Fosbury did, naturally, was deploy a method of thinking that completely broke the conventions of how something had always been done. 

He disrupted the status quo, in a positive sense. He didn’t just do it for the sake of it, he did it in order to try and deliver quite radical as opposed to incremental, linear change.

He set the bar for creative thinking.

Disruptive Thinking

In 1992, Jean-Marie Dru, the ‘D’ of French ad agency BDDP, coined the term ‘disruption’ in a communications business context and intellectualised something that came naturally to Fosbury and also other great creative thinkers.  

I have always thought that some people’s minds are hardwired to work in this disruptive way, mine certainly is. 

What Dru has done, cleverly, is to introduce a methodology to it which means that it can be engineered. In theory at least. Stage one involves identifying the cultural conventions around a brand, stage two defines a vision for it and stage three develops a disruptive strategy. 

The purpose of this is to free the brand from existing conventions in the marketplace and help it to grow by building a new and engaging vision.

Channel Your Inner Fosbury

In more tactical terms, channeling my 'inner Fosbury' has always meant that I’ve looked at the norms either in the category of the brand I’m trying to create something for, or the norms for that particular brand itself, and then tried to aggressively challenge those norms. 

It has then meant going against the flow, often trying to think of things that you’d never do, that couldn’t happen. But of course, with a bit of manipulation, or maybe tweaking, it could maybe happen. 

It has sometimes led to some outrageous thoughts, ideas that could offend, create controversy, anger even. It is also a lot of fun! But when you push something to the extremes first then you will have plenty of material from which to rein something back in.

Whether it comes naturally, or a process can be put in place to bring it to life, having a Fosbury mindset when operating at the top tier of the creative industry is a valuable asset – and is far from the flop that his method of high jumping became known as.