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Innovation Lessons from a Martial Arts Seminar?

Innovation is like a street fight. Or at least that’s the thought that popped into my head at one point during a recent self-defense seminar.

I had to leave the training mats to jot down this message from the instructor: “A technique does one thing; a principle does many.” That eloquently captures my philosophy of bringing simplicity to strategic innovation. I wish I had said it first.

Techniques are great, and they go a long way when you know clearly the situation in which to use them. In the self-defense seminar, as in my innovation career, I’ve learned many techniques. A technique will tell you, "if this happens, then do that." For example, if you are served Brussels sprouts by someone you really don't want to offend, then put them in your mouth, pretend to cough, spit them into your napkin, and dump them in the garbage when you help with post-meal clean-up.

But we live in a VUCA world – variable, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. Much like the chaos of a street fight. In such situations, you must simplify to the fundamental principles of what you are trying to do to be successful. For example, don't eat Brussels sprouts, they are gross.

In a weekend self-defense seminar, the training exercises go exactly as planned: the attacker throws a straight punch at your face from three feet away, or tries to stab at you with a rubber knife from just such an angle. You learn to block, counter-attack, disarm, get away, and with a little practice, you can be consistently successful employing the technique.

Then reality sets in. You spar. You change training partners. And things don’t go exactly as they did when you were learning in slow motion. The technique you thought you had mastered fails you.

That doesn’t mean that the technique was useless. The techniques work, and work well, when the principles behind them are well understood, and when practice makes them second nature. A technique is but one way to execute against the principle.

This is true of innovation efforts in organizations. Techniques are each just one way to execute against the fundamental principles behind effective innovation.

Yet all too often, people focus on techniques, and fail to grasp the principles. Someone reads the latest business book and says, “let’s try this,” and when it fails, discards it on the trash heap of misapplied tools, blaming the tool for not working rather than the carpenter for not knowing how to work with it properly.

So, our instructor consistently reinforced the principles he wanted us to have ingrained in our heads. Many of those principles had corollaries in the innovation world:

Focus on the mission. The objective we were being taught in the class was to get out of toxic situations as unscathed as possible. The objective was not to “win” a fight by beating up the other person. If you could create sufficient space to get away completely, that’s what you ought to do. It was easy to lose sight of that, though, when the conflict was made more real in a sparring situation. I’d continue the “fight” beyond the point where I could have gotten away, and I’d end up putting myself in danger. I had lost sight of my mission.

The same is true in business. Without a focus on the real mission an organization is trying to achieve, bad decisions to chase dollars or glory in off-target directions frequently result. The hardest decisions to make are the decisions to say “no” to something that seems good. But without clear focus and prioritization, the dilute organization can suffer greatly. As Dr. Mohan Sawhney puts it, “Growth is not about doing more, it’s about doing fewer things better…Focus, simplicity and clarity go hand in hand with speed and execution.”

Learn from failure. When learning new martial arts skills, I did almost everything wrong the first time. And the second time. And the seventeenth. And an hour after I thought I had finally mastered it, when we are reviewing what we had learned, I’d fail again. But each failure was teaching me to do it better.

Innovation efforts are, by definition, taking you into new territory. You are going to get it wrong much of the time. Even when you get it right, it’s often in spite of little failures that offer learning opportunities. As much as failure can hurt (whether in the physical sense of a self-defense class, or in the emotional and financial senses of the business world), it is critical to learn from that pain to be better in the future.

Learn from others. In the class, we were encouraged to observe each other, provide feedback, and ask questions. In this way, we were all able to learn things from the unique situations that arose with each student. And we were all able to get expert guidance from an instructor who knew what to look for and how to fix it.

In the same way, innovators should be learning from others, whether in other departments of the same company, other companies in the same industry, or other organizations anywhere. And getting the support and expertise of someone who knows the topic and can provide an objective point of view is invaluable. Getting a look from outside the company and even outside the industry can bring some wonderful “aha!” moments.

Learn incrementally. Each self-defense technique was taught starting with small movements first, even as simple as moving just one arm. Once the students grasped that motion, another would be added, perhaps a rotation of the torso. Then another – moving the feet. A full technique would be built, layer upon layer. What started off looking impossibly complex could be mastered by building onto what we already knew.

Innovation efforts should be similar, starting with small, inexpensive bets that teach you something about what you are trying to create. With each bit of learning – about the customer, about the technology, about the delivery process, whatever – add the next layer of learning onto it, taking risks and making bets measured to maximize the learning return on investment. You don’t bet the house on learning everything all at once. Don’t make the Ron Johnson JC Penney mistake.

Situational awareness. The seminar ended with a long and valuable discussion about the best self-defense there is: avoiding getting into dangerous situations in the first place. Paying attention to your surroundings, listening to any gut instincts about the world around you, taking appropriate precautions even when you may not sense danger, all of that plays into good situational awareness.

Innovators need to be aware of their situations, too. What’s going on in the world that could threaten their success? What opportunities are available? From what unexplored places could threats or opportunities arise? The best innovators are constantly scanning their environment, assessing the situation, and responding accordingly, even when specific activities don’t demand it.

I only expected to learn some self-defense tactics this weekend. Instead, I got a reinforcing lesson in the value of principles to simplify a chaotic world.

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