Those that know me will be aware that when I’m not helping companies innovate, I love an outdoor ‘ChALANge’, ideally either running up fells or cycling up mountain passes. (And yes I discovered this passion after coming to live in the very flat Cambridge countryside...). As I re-started my running routine after a particularly hectic time away from regular exercise I’ve started to reflect on what it means to be fit and how this impacts performance for other activities such as innovation.

For example, considering some aspects of what it might mean to be exercise fit and innovation fit:

Specificity: With exercise, our preparation needs to be different for each type of activity or event – training for a marathon is different from a sprint. Mountain bike fitness is different from training for the Tour de France. 

With innovation, we need to recognise that different kinds of strategic challenge require different types of innovation preparation, training and tools: incremental vs disruptive; new benefit-creation vs cost-reduction; outside-in vs inside-out etc.

Cross-training: And yet there is undoubtedly value in cross-training too – using complementary activities to build a more robust physique – strong not just in the specific dimensions of the exercise, but also in the supporting bones and muscles. I’ve had more problems than I can count with knees and backs that have been traced back to weak core muscles – no amount of running or cycling will fix that.

Equally, innovation ‘cross-training' in different disciplines, industries, tools and problem types helps individuals and teams to be more flexible to different challenges. Most importantly it allows you to make those unusual connections outside your industry or function that are often the spark of a breakthrough.

Strength and endurance: Once we know what type of training we need to do, we need to build a strong base. Regular strength exercises are increasingly heavier and regular endurance training will hopefully be longer than the event we’re training for. 

Some of the projects I’ve learnt most from started as ‘impossibly’ constrained problems. By exploring innovation challenges with tougher environments and extra constraints we’re often forced to try new tools which can reveal new options. But most importantly, I think is to have a regimen and regularity to your practice of innovation – if empathy or creativity are not regular activities are you improving your innovation fitness?

Mental fitness: Of course there is the mental perspective too. Getting used to performing at a threshold, and learning to deal with the pain and pressure this can involve. Knowing your limits and how to pace yourself for an event. And among all of this maintaining the judgement to think clearly to react when reality doesn’t match your plan. 

For innovation, the equivalent of training pain might be dealing with uncertainty and risk. The right mindset at the outset is important, but also the ability to maintain pace and the critical judgement of which uncertainties to ignore, and which to investigate. I’ve found these judgements which come through deliberate practice can make all the difference between a PB and a DNF in both innovation and exercise.

It is possible to complete a marathon without training for it. It isn’t advisable, and certainly, your chance of success is greater if you're fit. Equally, if you’re fit and prepared for innovation (as opposed to product development, marketing or business development for instance), then your chances of success must be considerably greater than if you’re competing without! So for innovators, some questions to consider:

  • Have you got the right type preparation for the innovation challenges you're likely to face (i.e. specificity)?
  • Is your team getting broad experience in other disciplines, industries and tools so that you’re ready for the next innovation challenge (i.e. cross-training)?
  • Do you have the right ‘innovation base’ of strength and endurance? Are you regularly practising innovation, or is it just a hobby?
  • Do you have the right mental preparation and experience to bring appropriate judgement to your problem (i.e. mental fitness)?

Are you innovation fit? I’d love to hear your thoughts.