What incumbent companies can learn from a Japanese competitive eater

Take a loot at the picture below. Who would win in a hot dog eating competition?

Japan wins Nathans International Hotdog Eating contest

The answer is that both the 300+lb Steve Keiner and the 100lb Kazutoyo Arai have won the most famous hot dog competition in the world. And it wasn’t uncommon for lean, small Japanese contestants to win in the 80s and 90s.

During that period the best contestants consumed 15-25 hot dogs in 12 minutes. Everyone believed that 25 or so was the ceiling for the world record, just like we all believe that it’s impossible for the 100m sprint world record to fall under 9 seconds.

Enter Takeru Kobayashi. The 128lb Japanese reverse-engineered the process of competitive eating and redefined it. He started separating the bun from the hot dog, splitting the latter in two halves and also introduced his trademark Kobi Shake.

Just a year later after Kazutoyo’s win with 25 hot dogs, Kobayashi doubled the world record by eating 50 hot dogs.

No one believed that the record could go higher than 25, just because everyone was thinking in the same traditional way.

35 years before Kobayashi’s revolution, a high jumper started experimenting with new jumping techniques. At that point the straddle and scissors jump techniques were the standards for high jump.

Until a young man named Dick Fosbury started going over the bar backwards. His new technique won him the gold medal in the 1968 Olympics, was eventually adopted by virtually all high jump athletes and is now known as the Fosbury Flop.

According to a study by consultancy company Ninety as reported in the Economist insurance companies are terrible at research and development. They are content with the old-time practices that have kept them in business for decades. neglecting the fact that technology can sweep them away.

Already, companies like Lemonade are trying to change the landscape and I wouldn’t be surprised if the tech giants decide to get involved in the insurance business.

Having been working in the tech industry for years I understand why these companies can topple big incumbents. Research, new ideas and projects were always encouraged in the companies I worked for even if it was hard to calculate the monetary impact that they would have in the future.

If something is innovative, tech companies will allocate resources and figure it out along the way. Even it if fails commercially or if it never becomes a product, it still produces knowledge that can be used for other projects.

Often, we are afraid to test new ideas just because no one else is practicing them. And even if we prove that they work, people might still mock us. Just like shooting underhand free throws. It’s effective but uncool, so people just refuse to use it, sacrificing a better free throw percentage for the sake of being accepted by their peers.

As Shaquille O’Neal put it when asked if you would try shooting free throws “granny style”:

I’d rather shoot 0% than shoot underhand.

Shaq could afford to do this, but what about your organization? Will you sacrifice your performance just because everyone is doing something in the same old way?