Monday, August 29, 2011

Why tribes are the answer to innovation needs

A friend, whose love of life and judgement I am growing to mistrust, suggested that I participate with him in a "Warrior Dash".  He talked about it for a few weeks and finally I signed up.  This weekend, I participated in the Warrior Dash in Huntersville, NC and I am far older and wiser for having done so.  His description of the event did not do justice to the actual gauntlet that we ran.  Still and all, for an over-the-hill guy who is a weekend jogger, I was somewhat proud of my results, even if my mud-soaked T-shirt and socks will never be the same again.

I'm wiser, not just because I learned how to duck under barbed wire in a mud bog (not me in the photo) or how to climb into and out of a dumpster, but because I learned something about innovation even in the midst of the Warrior Dash.  And what I learned should be instructive to your work in a nice, safe, clean cubicle or even the more dangerous corporate environs of a conference room.

I haven't discovered the history or provenance of the Warrior Dash, but it appears to be an interesting confluence of your typical summer festival in a field, with bands, booze and general mingling, mixed with a BMX course in which you, personally, are the bike and rider.  So, right from the start there's an innovation lesson - the confluence of a number of trends to create something new.  People who are into fitness need new exploits, and those of us who would merely like to imagine themselves as the cover model for Runner's World need some new exploit to attempt.  So much more fun if the finish line includes a mud bog, getting hosed off by a fire truck, and the handy access of a large beer.

What was even more instructive to me, however, was that few of the runners in my "wave" seemed to be at all athletic.  Many were dressed in costumes or had team t-shirts, and lagged well off of my (rather slow) pace.  It seemed to be something they decided to do together, as a group, for the experience rather than for the best time or result.  Another innovation lesson - they were out for experience, hoping for the best but understanding the experience of the course would improve their knowledge or outlook.  What's more, each team, and everyone who participated, became part of a tribe, even if only for a little while.

Seth Godin wrote a book about tribes, but I think he got one thing wrong.  There were no leaders at the event, and everyone decided how to run, whether to run or walk, how to dress and so forth.  All of these people (over 6000 racers in two days at Huntersville) became part of the Warrior Dash tribe.  My wife is already talking about doing another one.  Ouch.  But what great insight for innovators!

I stood, transfixed, as the first wave went out.  Clearly very few of the people racing were tri-athletes out to win a medal.  They were there for the fun, for the difference and for the experience.  It was a new experience, a new challenge that they embraced.  These folks paid good money to roll under barriers, crawl under barbed wire, scale a rope ladder and jump over the burning chemical logs (cough, environmental hazard, cough).  For this they got: scraped knees, blisters, heat stroke, mud in every possible orifice, clothing stained beyond repair and a cheap T-shirt.  In other words, the "awards", especially extrinsic ones, didn't measure up to the pain.  There was far more intrinsic reward than extrinsic benefit, which is also very relevant for innovators.

I don't know if the people who created the Warrior Dash know what they've got, but they've got the perfect model for an innovation initiative.  Innovation will work best when people come together to face an inordinately large or difficult challenge that they have great personal interest in solving.  There won't be an easy path to the finish, with many difficult barriers, hurdles and setbacks along the way.  The only people who will complete the task will be those who were in it for more than extrinsic rewards. 

There were some key differences between an innovation effort and a Warrior Dash, however.  One notable difference was the fact that unknown strangers were yelling encouragement to me while I was hip-deep in the mud bog.  People I'll never meet face to face were cheering for my (really our) success.  In most innovation activities, there are as many people silently or publicly rooting for failure as there are for success, and much innovation is done in isolation, far from the prying eyes of employees or customers.  Another difference between the Warrior Dash and most innovation initiatives? When I see someone with the Warrior Dash shirt on I'll have instant respect and knowledge of what they went through - we are now compadres in some larger sense with respect for each other.  Innovators are often outcasts even when successful, and can hopefully form tribes with other innovators in their own organization at best and are difficult to identify in the "real world".

Yes, I recognize that a 3 mile dash over difficult obstacles in the Carolina heat is a far cry from corporate innovation, but in many ways the lessons and outcomes are strangely familiar.  Innovation is about doing something unusual and difficult, often poorly prepared, with people you often don't know that well.  The barriers and obstacles are physical, cultural and monetary, but the work plays out in air conditioned offices, conference rooms and hallways.  Perhaps one of the best activities a new innovation team could embrace before starting a project would be to participate in a Warrior Dash together.  Then, the corporate hurdles may seem a little lower, the risks a bit more bearable and the team work a lot more integrated. 

We innovators, internal and external, are a tribe.  We may not share all of the same capabilities, strengths or knowledge, but we've all been through the same fires.  Respect other innovators and acknowledge their scars and sacrifices.  We are the sharp end of the corporate spear, and carry the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune to prove it.



The Warrior Race
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:12 AM

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