3 Combat Sports Lessons that Apply to Good Innovation Practice

Jiu-jitsu is my favorite hobby.

Among the many things I do outside work – mountain biking, adventure racing, golfing, drumming – I’d rather be grappling, and it’s not particularly close. When I break it down into its individual parts, it makes perfect sense why jiu-jitsu holds my dedication… it’s intense, quick-thinking, and innovative problem solving in a physical context.

Three lessons I learn (over, and over, and over again) in jiu-jitsu apply directly to my work life as an innovation and strategy consultant:

  1. Great ideas come from everywhere – Everyone’s jiu-jitsu journey is different and personal. When people are approaching grappling competency they develop an understanding for which techniques work best for their body and begin to discover and capitalize on their unique physical gifts – and even how to optimize those techniques for their body. You might expect all the key insights and great ideas to come from the VP of Innovation, but recognizing the value different perspectives can add to your innovation project, in data analysis, ideation, testing, and other areas, positions your innovation project for success.

    I was winning this match 10-7 before my opponent, Zeb, came up with a couple great ideas, adapted to the situation and scored four points in the final 15 seconds. Whoops.
  2. Adaptation is the only way to survive – “Everyone has plans until they get hit,” Mike Tyson famously said (borrowed?) in 1987 before his boxing match with Tyrell Biggs. No matter how meticulously you plan an innovation project, you’re going to get hit. It might be from discovering a consumer attitude or behavior that totally contradicts your hypothesis, or from realizing all your best ideas for solving a problem you’ve identified are cost prohibitive. The only safe bet is knowing you’re going to get hit, to face adversity, during innovation and unless you are willing to adapt – often in the moment – your project is going to fail.
  3. Fundamentals are mandatory – Tangentially related to point one, jiu-jitsu culture includes a lot of “flavor of the week” techniques people collect from YouTube tutorials. These techniques live on a spectrum from downright awesome and effective to aesthetically pleasing but completely useless. Rarely do you see these “flavor of the week” techniques executed at the highest level of competition – jiu-jitsu as a sport or in MMA most often leans heavily on fundamental techniques, and your innovation project should do the same.

    “I’m not crying, I’m just allergic to jerks.” My jiu-jitsu coach, Alexandre Meadows at Midtown Grappling Academy, works – and ultimately finishes on me – a triangle choke, a technique you might learn your first day of training.

Organizations with a good understanding of and grasp on executing their core products and services can more effectively innovate because they sit on a solid foundation. Without sound business fundamentals, innovation is doomed to fail as insights and concepts reveal and aggravate organizational weaknesses that have been too long neglected.

Innovation is a great way to grapple with complex problems and position your organization for success. But, whether you’re using Design Thinking, the Doblin Process, Jobs to Be Done, or another proven innovation methodology, you better be ready to see great ideas wherever they appear, take your lumps and respond accordingly, and protect the foundation of your business so you can grow effectively.