Leadership / Management

Innovation is often small steps, not giant leaps

Want to know what modern-day innovation looks like? Look no further than the University of New Hampshire.

It’s not exactly known as a hotbed of American innovation, but a kinesiology professor there named Erik Swartz might have figured out how to do something that scores of big-name, high-paid researchers have thus far failed to do.

He might have figured out how to save football.

The NFL is dealing with a number of PR nightmares these days, and right at the top of the list is the long-term physiological and emotional damage suffered by former players who experienced repeated concussions and other types of brain trauma during their careers. Some suspect that such injuries are a major cause of suicide and may lead to memory loss, depression, and degenerative brain disease after retirement.

This has led players and non-players alike to ask some powerful questions: Can anything be done to prevent such injuries? Should we let our children play such a violent sport? Is football itself in jeopardy?

Swartz might have found an answer.

He has developed a training program called Helmetless Tackling Training, or HUTT. It is exactly what it sounds like. New Hampshire football players spend time each week training without helmets — with full contact, mind you.

“Players dive at tackling dummies, or push into blocking sleds, or wrap up a live runner without helmets,” Sports Illustrated reporter Jenny Vrentas writes. “Their heads are bare, and so by instinct, they don’t lead with their heads.”

“At first, tackling without a helmet doesn’t seem like the best idea,” sophomore defensive end Cameron Shorey told Vrentas. “But when we started doing it, it made more sense to keep our heads out of the contact zone. We use our chests, use our legs, and absorb most of the force with our bodies, not our heads.”

All of the protection a football player has — all of the helmets and pads and braces — might offer nothing more than a false sense of security. “I’m protected,” football players might be saying, “so I can hit harder.” Injuries skyrocket.

By removing all of that protection, Swartz might actually be making his players safer.

Is it working? The jury is still out. Swartz and a group of researchers are in the process of testing the effectiveness of the program.

Still, to me, this is what innovation looks like today.

It’s not some groundbreaking new gadget or technology. Real innovation is often just a simple change, a tweak to our normal routines that pays huge dividends down the road.

“Our normal metaphors about innovation are all about breakthroughs, change, things that are different, a radical reframing of an industry,” futurist Andrew Zolli once told me. “The reality is that most innovative work is incremental improvement. It’s about staying ahead of trends as opposed to reacting to trends.”

That’s exactly what Swartz has done. The solution, he theorizes, isn’t better protection or advanced medical treatment. It’s training players to avoid the problem in the first place. He is testing an incremental improvement.

We can do that, too. We just need to redefine our ideas about innovation. It’s all about small steps.

And the first step, it seems to me, is to stop trying to solve problems and start asking better questions.


Bill Sheridan