Ever want to throw a shot put into the middle of an intransigent organization or system? I know I have. With a shot put weighing in at 16 pounds most of us had better either be very close to the target or consider a better way to catalyze change.
You probably haven’t heard of James Fuchs, who passed away on October 8, but he was a classic innovator. Fuchs was the best shot-putter in the world from 1949-1950. He won 88 consecutive meets, set four world records, and changed the sport forever. Fuchs teaches us about the difference between best practices and next practices.
Fuchs was a fullback on the Yale football team but injuries kept him from playing. He was also on the track team and while recovering from surgery for a leg injury he was limited to competing in discus and shot put. Fuchs became best known for shot put. Fuchs’ leg injury prevented him from using the standard and universally accepted shot put technique. State of art at the time was for a shot-putter to come to a complete stop before releasing the shot. Before Fuchs, shot put was all about brute arm strength. Athletes focused their training on weight lifting. All shot putters competed on a model of arm strength equals distance. That is until James Fuchs came along. Fuchs didn’t lift weights at all and weighed only 215 pounds, small for a shot putter.
Because Fuchs’ leg injury prevented him from using accepted best practice he invented a new practice that worked for him. Innovation is more about next practices than best practices. Fuchs came up with a fluid catapult motion that didn’t require him to stop short aggravating his injury. His innovative technique involved rocking back on one leg, swinging the other in front for balance, hopping forward and propelling the 16-pound iron ball forward. He had learned from a physiology teacher that legs are three times more powerful than arms. Fuchs, like all innovators do, took advantage of both existing constraints and insights missed by current competitors. His innovation became known as the ’sideways glide’ working around his injury and taking much better advantage of the power of his legs. In 1949 Fuchs set a new world shot put record of 58 feet 4 ½ inches. In 1950 he beat his own world record three times with a personal best of 58 feet 10 ¾ inches. He had changed the sport forever. Fuchs’ sideways glide became the new best practice for all shot-putters. That is until innovation struck again and it wasn’t.
Fuchs’ shot put record stood until 1953 when Parry O’Brien improved upon Fuchs’ innovation. O’Brien took advantage of Fuchs’ insight on the power of legs versus arms but took it to another level. He began by facing the back of the circle, turning 180 degrees, and spinning to generate momentum. The O’Brien Glide became the new standard. Parry O’Brien broke Fuchs’ record and held it from 1953 to 1959. O’Brien became the first shot-putter to break the 60 foot mark. He broke his own world record 17 times winning 116 consecutive competitions. Shot put innovation has continued inexorably as the glide begat the spin. While the glide approach is still being practiced today a spin move has become the predominant practice. The goal of the spin move is releasing the shot with maximum forward velocity and an angle of about forty degrees. Randy Barnes is the current world record holder, and used a spin technique to accomplish his amazing record distance of 75 feet 10 1/4 inches.
Throwing a shot put weighing 16 pounds over 75 feet is only possible because of past innovations and standing on the shoulders of innovators like James Fuchs. We can learn a lot from innovators like Fuchs. Instead of giving up or complaining about his injury he turned his constraints into an advantage. Innovators look at the job to be done with a wide angle lens opening up new solutions and approaches. Innovators create next practices. Perhaps instead of going to war with current systems and trying to throw a shot put into the middle of them we should create new collaborative techniques that unleash the adjacent possible. RIP James Fuchs.
Saul Kaplan is the Founder and Chief Catalyst of the Business Innovation Factory (BIF). Saul shares innovation musings on his blog at It’s Saul Connected and on Twitter at @skap5.