Monday 6 August 2012

Best Practices and Olympic High Jump techniques

Picture from here
This is Olympic Week 2, so let's look at some hard data on Best Practices and how they affect performance.

Let's look at the high jump.

There was a time when there was no established technique for the high jump. People approached the bar front-on, often from a standing start. However as the high jump became an international field event, techniques and practices began to be developed.

One of the early successful practices was the Western Roll, introduced in 1912, leading to the world record of that time, and a step change in performance (see picture above). This new practice rapidly became "best practice" of the time, and was predominant through the Berlin Olympics of 1936.

The Western Roll was superseded by the Straddle technique in 1937. You can see on the graph how this new practice led to another step-change in performance, with record height rapidly increasing over a period of years as the technique was perfected and adopted around the world.

Then in 1968, Dick Fosbury introduced a new technique, the "Fosbury flop", to win a gold method in Mexico City. As Wikipedia says, "After he used this Fosbury flop to win the 1968 Olympic gold medal, the technique began to spread around the world, and soon floppers were dominating international high jump competitions". The new practice had become Best Practice, and so standard practice. Over the years since 1968, the details of the Flop have been perfected, but it still remains the basis of Best Practice in high jump techniques, until a new technique is discovered.

So what has all this got to do with Knowledge Management?

Basically, this is a metricated historical look at Best Practice under controlled conditions, and allows us to draw the following conclusions.

1) Best Practice is not static. Best is "Best for now, until something better is found". The existence of "current best" doesn't stop you looking for Better.

2) Best Practice is what delivers Best Results. In high jumping, this is easily defined - it's the technique allows you to jump higher than any other technique.

3) People will follow Best Practice whenever they are highly incentivised to deliver the best performance, e.g. in an Olympic Games, where the new Best Practice is better than their old practice, and when they have not yet found an even better practice (see number 1 above).

4) Best Practice is easiest to develop and copy in a relatively repeatable situation, where the parameters remain fairly constant, and where the metrics are clear (such as jumping over as high a bar as possible).

5) Under such circumstances, changes in Best Practice drive step changes in performance - the steps seen in the attached graph

6) There will be personal variants of Best Practice, but the core of the practice - the fundamentals of the technique which differentiate it from other techniques -  remains the same. Tinker with the core, and the practice fails to deliver.

7) Changes in Best Practice are often driven by changes in context. The Fosbury Flop, which drove the biggest leap forward in high Jump achievement, was made possible by the change from sawdust landing pits to deep foam matting. Basically, you could land on your neck without killing yourself. So the new Best Practice - the flop -  was born.

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