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How a Bold Innovator Turned Her Industry Upside Down by Thinking Outside the...Pool

Instead of seeking an incremental tweak to an old approach, Fiona Fairhurst expanded the possibilities of competitive swimwear by challenging the core assumptions of her field to explore entirely new concepts. And it worked.

Photo by Francois-Xavier Marit/Getty Images

Fiona Fairhurst was facing a challenge. The competitive swimmer was in charge of Speedo’s R&D division and charged with inventing a new swimsuit for Olympic athletes to help them win in their ultra-competitive sport. Prevailing wisdom at that time was to make swimsuits as small and smooth as possible. If you’ve ever seen the cringe-worthy dad at a public beach wearing a suit that is far too small, you know exactly what I mean.

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Instead of pursuing an incremental gain based on conventional approaches, Fiona instead took a more open-minded view. For inspiration, she began to study the fastest aquatic animals in the sea. Realizing that sharks were among the quickest, she drew inspiration from the high-speed predators to completely reimagine what a swimsuit could be.

The Speedo FastSkin suit looks nothing like its predecessors. Instead of the traditional teeny-tiny suits of the past, the FastSkin covers the swimmer’s entire body, arms and legs. Unlike its extra smooth ancestors, the FastSkin has tiny ridges in the fabric which were modeled after the skin of sharks. These small ridges, called denticles, reduce drag and increase swim speed.

While the idea was originally mocked, the results were widely celebrated. Introduced for the first time in the 2000 Olympics, 83 percent of the medals were won by swimmers wearing this new suit. Even better, 13 of 15 world records were broken by swimmers wearing the FastSkin suit. As new versions of the FastSkin emerge, Speedo continues to dominate competitive racing to this day.

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Fiona’s approach is the quintessential move of innovators. Instead of seeking an incremental tweak to an old approach, she expanded the possibilities by challenging the core assumptions of her field in order to explore entirely new concepts. She drew her inspiration from far outside the echo chamber of her industry to invent something profoundly better.

Whether you’re trying to invent a new swimsuit, upgrade a business process, boost sales or stand out from the competitive pack, Fiona’s outside-in model can be a powerful framework for progress. By stepping back and asking yourself, “Where else in the world does a similar situation exist,” you open yourself up to an expansive supply of new ideas. Fiona borrowed from nature, but you can also try borrowing ideas from adjacent industries, sports or other walks of life. In fact, applying a core principle from one field to another has driven innovation for centuries.

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We’re taught to “think outside the box,” but even that is too limiting since you still wind up on the same piece of paper. By thinking outside the pool entirely, Fiona was able to enjoy remarkable results and make history in her field.

This week, try thinking outside the pool to reel in a fresh catch of innovation. It’s your best shot at landing the big one…hook, line and sinker.

Josh Linkner is a five-time tech entrepreneur, New York Times bestselling author, venture capital investor, keynote speaker and professional-level jazz guitarist. To learn more, please visit JoshLinkner.com

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