Here I sit watching the Olympics and – once again – I see other countries beating the USA in sports it invented.
Example: freestyle aerial skiing. A sport that – by its very “freestyle” nature – could have only emerged from a dynamic American culture.
But tonight I watch Chinese aerialists performing with pin-point precision, and taking the U.S. team to school.
Example #2: half-pipe snowboarding. In the early days, the U.S. dominated this sport (one that the U.S. invented). Now, the pressure's on. The honeymoon's over. (Japan won silver and bronze; Switzerland, gold.)
As other countries catch on, once-comfortable U.S. athletes are often caught flat-footed. And therefore, vulnerable to emerging competition.
This endangerment, strangely enough, has its upsides. By living in a fluid U.S. culture, where ideas bump into each other, creative athletes start spotting fresh patterns; and invent new sports to dominate and grow.
Consider the solo-sports that have emerged from the U.S.: surfing, skateboarding, freestyle motocross and half-pipe snowboarding. Could these freestyle-oriented sports have been invented in the more authoritarian cultures of China or Japan?
It’s possible, but not likely.
So, what should the U.S. do to remain competitive? What’s its strategy for overall athletic success?
The answer, I know not.
But while watching the Olympics, I think about how this situation relates to U.S. business innovation and sustainability. And to us as individual workers.
In categories that U.S. companies invent (i.e. cordless telephone, iPod, minicomputer), they reap benefits for a period of time, but are soon overtaken by other countries that learn to do them cheaper and better.
To me, this leads to three options, which can be applied to both U.S. sports and businesses. They can either:
apply all resources towards improving things they invent, to extend product and performance life-cycles; or
abandon their inventions when they start maturing, quickly re-direct resources to create the “next thing,” and continue this type of cycle; or
split resources between the two options above, then deliberately re-assign resources (to discover the "next thing") at the most optimal point on the life-cycle curve.
Should U.S. companies invest more into improving the activity or product that they invented? Or, should they quickly re-direct resources at critical maturation points to create new opportunities from which to dominate?
Should the U.S. aspire to be the best creators of the world, or the best duplicators?
How about you, as an individual? Should you be a creator, or a duplicator?
As the world gets increasingly competitive -- and as product life cycles shorten -- it's never been more important to re-invent; to create the next thing. Including your self.
As the world changes, are you where you need to be? Make the shift.