Published 2006-03-19

In 1934, a swim coach at the University of Iowa speculated that breaststroke swimmers could gain a significant time advantage by bringing their arms and shoulders out of the water during recovery (i.e. when the arms are moving forward). This innovative new stroke shaved up to 30% off a swimmer's time, and by the 1952 Olympics, virtually every breast stroker used the new modified style. The rules body that governs swimming declared the variation an entirely new stroke, and thus was born the butterfly stroke.

As far as I can see, a business can gain a strategic advantage over its rivals in only one of two ways:

  • Do what everyone else does, but do it better.
  • Do something completely new.

"Innovation" consumes much of the Official Conversation at my office lately. I reacted at first with some horror to this notion. One of the reasons I signed on full time with my employer is because of our attitude towards excellence: do what everyone else does, but do it better. Such an attitude requires discipline, maturity, and finesse; a grown-up workplace, in other words. Innovation, at least as I understand it, requires either a fearless corporate culture or amazing good luck. For every good idea there are 10 bad ones. (This is as much as I could glean from reading about Apple and Google, at any rate.) Such fearlessness would run counter to the mature work environment that attracted me. A recent company meeting set my mind straight on this point however. "Innovation" is the new company buzzword for "do what everyone else does, but do it betterer." Phew, that was close.