Monday, January 16, 2023

Why campfires are the perfect analogy for innovation

 I grew up in Scouting and really enjoyed my time as a scout.  What I think most of us enjoyed the most were the weekend campouts, where we could sleep in tents, roam in the local forest and, best of all, build fires.  I've never fully understood why boys are so attracted to fire.  Perhaps it is fire's potential destructive nature. Perhaps it's the concept of controlling such an awesome power.  Perhaps it's just cooking hot dogs and marshmallows over an open flame.  All I know is, we loved to build fires and cook over the open flame.

Campfire 101

Every scout knew that a good fire begins by preparing the ground, scraping away the dead leaves to expose bare soil, so that when the fire was burning, it was contained in a small spot.  We'd often gather rocks to contain the wood in a small circle.  These were simply good practices and safety measures.

Next, we'd spread out and gather as many small dry twigs as we could find for kindling.  You need something to catch fire quickly, that doesn't take too much effort to get started.  Then your kindling will burn hot enough and long enough to allow larger branches and eventually logs to catch fire.  Good fire-makers know that the wood - kindling and the larger logs - needs to be good and dry and ready to burn, not freshly cut green trees full of sap, but older, dead logs that have dried out.  The older, dead and dry wood catches fire more quickly and burns more cleanly.  Once you have a real fire going, you can burn green wood, but fresh, green wood kicks up a lot of smoke.

If you've built your fire correctly, preparing the ground, building up your dry kindling with good dry branches and logs ready, a few small sparks will be all it will take to get your fire going.  We used to challenge each other to see who could start a fire with the fewest matches.  Some more intrepid scouts had learned to create sparks by striking flints.  I've even once witnessed someone start a fire with a fire bow, but that takes a lot of work.

So, what's this interesting flashback to scouting days have to do with innovation?  A lot - and we forget far too much of the symmetry.

Innovation and campfires

There's a reason so many innovation tools and methods are associated with light or fire.  Ideas are often considered "sparks" that will catch flame to create new ideas.  When scouts are striking matches or striking flints, they are creating sparks directed to their kindling, in hopes that the spark will ignite the kindling and then the rest of the wood.

When you are generating ideas, through individual work, or brainstorming, or some other means, you are sparking ideas.  While idea generation can often seem challenging to introverts or people who don't think of themselves as "creative", it is the easiest activity in the innovation realm.  Anyone can do it, anytime, in any location, with little preparation.  And, often, that's what's wrong with idea generation - it can be too easy to do - just like striking a match.

As I noted above, we would never strike a match without first preparing a fire circle and building a good platform of kindling.  A lot of preparation went into building the right conditions for that spark to catch up a flame.  Yet in most businesses, we are apt to go into an idea generation activity with little preparation, and with little connection between ideas generated and how they will be realized.  There's often a big gap in companies between idea generation and the work necessary to develop an idea into a new product or service.

As scouts, we'd build a small mound of kindling, ready to catch the spark, with more wood prepared to feed the fire as it grew.  As innovators, we need to have the right conditions, the right preparation, but also the right next steps for a good idea.  Who will manage the idea?  What are the processes to develop and validate the idea?  Who will build a prototype and test it?  These concepts need to happen BEFORE the idea is generated, not afterwards.  Too often, we expect that simply generating good ideas will be enough - that ideas have value in and of themselves and will mature naturally with little help or guidance.  No, ideas are like matches that flare for a moment but will burn and die unless they become the spark for something else.  

Wet wood

Scouts know that dry wood matters when you build a fire.  It's far simpler to ignite dry wood than wood that is wet or green.  The same concept applies to innovation - using the right people and setting the right conditions and ingredients matter.  Working with people who are not ready to innovate, or who have doubts about the ideas, is like trying to catch wet wood on fire - it is possible, just not the best approach.  Here, we can also talk about corporate culture.  If the culture of the business is to focus on existing products, to avoid risk, then you are metaphorically working with wet wood.  It is as important to describe how ideas will evolve and mature as it is to find the right people with the best motivations and help them overcome any corporate culture or challenges to innovation or innovative thinking.


We scouts didn't get good at building fires by doing this occasionally, but by trial and error and by learning from our peers and our scout leaders.  We had our scout manuals to tell us how to build a good fire, and we built fires every time we went camping, because that was the source of heat, and how we cooked our food.  And yes, we did challenge each other to build fires using the fewest matches (or no matches).  To earn one specific merit badge, you were sent off into the woods by yourself to build your own shelter, to find and cook your own food, for a weekend with a knife, a blanket and two matches.  Believe me, you learn to build your fires carefully when you have a limited supply of matches.

Starter Wood

Those of us who had a little more experience would often carry a few shavings of what we called "fire starter".  Fire starter (or what some call fat wood) comes from the joints or roots of an old pine tree, filled with resin, which catches fire really easily and burns very hot and fast.  It acts as a catalyst for the other kindling and will burn even when other wood won't.  You may find that you need a catalyst as well - someone from outside your group, or perhaps outside your company, to spark ideas.  Or, you may want to have your team read magazine or web articles about what competitors are doing or new emerging technologies in order to spark creative juices or create a competitive challenge.  Smart innovators will use any catalyst they can to engage their audience and create heightened competitive challenge.

Campfires and Innovation

So, there are at least five ideas to take away from this reminiscence:

  1. Ideas are sparks, and without the right preparation and good processes and responsibilities defined, you are wasting your time generating ideas.  Build your firepit, stack your kindling and know how to fuel a fire before you generate ideas.
  2. Sparks don't burn wet wood.  Find the right people, prepare them, help overcome cultural objections.  Establish the best conditions possible, in the room and beyond the initial meeting.
  3. Nobody does this right the first time.  It takes practice to learn to build a fire with a single match.  It takes practice to learn to generate and manage ideas.  If innovation is important in your company, it will be something that you practice and do regularly.
  4. Have a clear purpose.  While this discussion may sound like it borders on pyromania, we also knew that our leaders would send us home if we started fires that did not have a purpose.  Fire is a tool, useful and occasionally dangerous, and not to be invoked lightly or carelessly.  When we started a fire, we had to have a purpose - warmth or cooking.  When you do innovation work, you need to have a clearly defined purpose, that everyone understands and agrees on.
  5. Identify a catalyst or create a challenge.  We'd use or find fat wood whenever we could, because it made starting the fire easier.  You may need to introduce a catalyst who can generate ideas that your team would not normally consider or produce information or a competitive challenge to push your team to be more creative.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:11 AM


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