The Tao of Innovation

Insights for the modern business samurai

Ya Gotta Drip Some Sweat to Change Things

How getting an enterprise truly innovative is a lot like getting fit personally.

It being spring and my no longer being a spring chicken, I signed up at the local gym. I signed up for a workout system called Crossfit, that I thought offered a consistent and effective philosophy. The simple truth is that I needed a boost, to get me over the hump that afflicts the middle aged and those with a little too much middle.

I’m a bit smitten by the evolutionary fitness movement, which was launched by Dr. Arthur DeVany's book, The New Evolution Diet: What Our Paleolithic Ancestors Can Teach Us About Weight Loss, Fitness, and Aging. De Vany been talking about evolutionary fitness for 25 years, and his theories about low-carb eating and cross-training workouts are clearly foundational for the Crossfit system.

De Vany's theory is based on fitness patterns of animals in the wild. Predators, like lions in the wild, spend long periods in languid rest, which are punctuated by brief, highly intense periods during hunts. They don't use the elliptical to stay in shape. The same is true for prey, like gazelles, which have adapted for brief periods of intense escape activity, fueled by adrenaline.

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According to archeologists, paleolithic humans lived like lions. When they found large amounts of food, they ate lavishly and then laid around, pretty much like the lions do today. They ate grass fed meats, wild salmon, fresh fruits and vegetables. That's because agriculture did not come into being until 10,000 years ago, when humans figured out how to sow seed and grow produce in predetermined areas. There was no refrigeration. We went out for food when we were hungry. Sometimes there was no food and we were able to survive that. These are revolutionary ideas that imply that the medical advice to get three balanced meals a day and one hour a day for exercise... are pure nonsense. As a result, we are now the most overweight nation in history, and getting heavier every day.

And so, I signed up for a series of relatively brutal yet compassionate Crossfit workouts. They push you hard enough to drip sweat. When I was younger, I was able to truly relish a good workout, but after a few too many years of high-tech stress, riding on an adrenaline high, and too many Michelin three-star restaurants… let’s just say that left to my own devices, I would probably never actually use any fitness devices.

During a workout, as my mind wandered to numb the sheer agony of exercise, I realized that reinvigorating a mature company requires just as much commitment and dedication as it would take for an out-of-shape fifty-year-old to drop thirty pounds, train himself to run a marathon, and to regain the vigor and agility of youth. It’s not an easy thing to do. A diet here or a new exercise program there, and you might experience a short-term win or two, but you will never reach the escape velocity required to overcome your own middle-aged inertia.

Similarly, for the enterprise, there is a kind of evolutionary fitness model as well... it is not sufficient to make a half-hearted go of getting innovative. Trotting out yet another innovation initiative is like trying out the latest fad diet. Buying yet another "gamified" idea catcher is like buying an Ab Master during a late-night infomercial. ("It makes working out fun!") The question is: Are you actually going to use it? Or will it just end up gathering dust in the garage?

To achieve true change requires that you literally rewrite the DNA of your corporate culture, to teach and reinforce, through every member of your team and within every process, how to live and breathe in this new way. Serious innovation requires that your company drip some sweat.

Achieving true change and true innovation requires a serious and dedicated commitment to increasing creativity and risk-taking, developing a system for managing innovation, and finally continuous learning. Remember that any pursuit based on human skill, like learning how to play the piano, requires 5,000 hours for the human brain to learn. Ideation, the skill of creating ideas, is no different from any other art. It takes a significant amount of dedicated and focused practice. There are no shortcuts to becoming a master, and in this case, it isn’t a single brain that needs to learn a skill, it’s your entire organization. So the first commitment must be to get serious about innovation.

The next requirement is a developing a methodology for managing innovation. If you think about it, how could a project manager within your company be successful without project management software? How could accounting be successful without accounting software? In the same way, innovation management requires tools, metrics, controls, and reporting. Furthermore, every company is different and the flow of knowledge is different. So customizing these tools could possibly be as complex as configuring an ERP implementation, because this is ERP for ideas – and you need to measure and track progress accurately. Just like keeping track of your body fat...

The final requirement is continuous learning and training. Just as you'd need a fitness trainer or coach to get your over the hump to a state of "fitness adherence," you need innovation trainers and coaches throughout the organization. The first step to fitness is to realize you're out of shape, and the first step to innovativeness is to realize that your company – as long as you're not Apple or Google – actually kind of sucks at innovation.

Great companies create the conditions for their employees to live up to their potential. This includes driving them and pushing them to do the best work of their lives. Products to be proud of. Results worthy of acclaim. A culture that is passionate, creative, resilient, trustworthy, and forward-thinking. 

Finally, I’m happy to report that I’m getting used to the workouts. After the pain, there’s that blissful endorphin high that you can ride for a couple of hours. Well, at least until the soreness hits the next day. Anyway, I’m loving the high so much that I’ve begun adding “fitness goals” into business partnership and consulting agreements. Something like: “In this Joint Venture the parties agree to mutually support each other to achieve basic fitness goals and targets, in addition to the aforementioned business goals…” I call it a “fitness co-accountability clause”.

If you decide you want to try adding mutual fitness to your partnership agreements, let me know how they work out. I’d love to report about companies and people who give something like this a try. I like to quote my amazing Crossfit trainer, Nikki Harrosh at TJ’s Gym in Mill Valley, who says about ROI, "Hard work and determination regarding health and fitness is the best investment into one's future that there is..."

Also, check out this innovative tech company that offers Crossfit as a corporate perk.

Moses Ma, a partner at Next Gen Ventures, is co-author of the forthcoming book Agile Innovation.

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