Getting Lost, Poison Ivy & Piranhas: Lessons in Innovation

Terry Powers at the beginning of the trail to Aconcagua

The innovation journey at the beginning, when things look easy. My buddy Terry Powers at the beginning of our attempted bike ascent of Aconcagua.

I got a little lost today, but my hour of going in squiggles, getting whacked in the face by poison ivy, backtracking as a result of overgrown trails, wondering which path to take and whether I should continue forward or turnaround gave me a great lesson in innovation.

I’m blessed, I can jump on my mountain bike and in just twenty minutes be on beautiful single-track trails underneath the forest canopy along the Wolf River in Shelby Farms Park in Memphis. Today, I decided I wanted to try a section I’d never been on, so off I went swishing around the curves, bouncing over oak roots, zigging past poison ivy and whooping it up as I thanked my lucky stars.

And then I decided to come back on a different trail which started out great but then quickly turned into a poorly maintained track that led to a section overgrown with at least chest/head-high plants. Remembering the last time I bushwhacked through similar territory I wound up covered with dozens of ticks, so instead I decided to turn around and take another trail which I expected would take me home.

So off I went, but instead of going a few hundred yards and arriving at my desired destination, I found myself thrashing through overgrown sections, faced with branching trails which then branched into other tracks that then branched into yet more potential trails. At one point I could see I was close to the Green Line, a big paved trail, on Google maps, but Google couldn’t show me how to get there as I was no longer on the documented trail.

I tried backtracking and trying another trail, but that one disappeared quickly, so I decided to go ahead and push through the overgrown section and hope it would get me to where I wanted to go, and it did!

Later, I realized that my mountain bike ride was a perfect analogy, right down to the squiggly trails looping back and forth, for the challenges of innovation.

We start off excited, envisioning a great new path forward, not too concerned because we’re on somewhat familiar terrain. Then suddenly, the path forward diverges into multiple options without any clear signs as to which one we should take.

Should we turn back or continue forward? Go left, or right? Which is worse or better, the mud bog, the sand trap or the overgrown section? How long before we figure out whether we’re going in the right direction? Is success around the corner, or is it just another patch of poison ivy? Will getting whipped in the face with poison ivy just itch or will it blind? Should we have played it safe? Will the pain have been worth it?

Fortunately, besides the poison ivy and ticks, I was never in any real danger of anything other than a little sweat, frustration and burning a few more calories, which is what you should strive for; to experiment but in a way that minimizes the consequences. Regardless of the outcome, the key is to capture the learnings to shape future decisions.

Sometimes both the risk and the opportunity are much bigger. And sometimes the gamble isn’t worth the risk, and so while persistence is often worshiped, giving up and living to fight another day is the better option. Back before I became a responsible citizen, I spent a year cycling from Argentina to Venezuela with my buddy Terry Powers. Along the way we decided to try biking/climbing up Aconcagua, the highest mountain in South America. We made it up to base camp at 14,000 feet but since we were the only people on the mountain because the climbing season had ended, and since we had no idea whether a snow storm would blow in and bury us until spring, we decided to turnaround and skip trying to summit.

Other times, you think you have no choice but to commit, damn the consequences, like the time I had to cross a snake & piranha infested river in the Amazon on a partially submerged log all alone with my bike on my back, knowing that if I slipped my bike ride and maybe life might be over. Scared to the point of crying, I made it across, only to be told by a guy in a dugout canoe floating by that I was an idiot! “Why didn’t you take the bridge just a kilometer away? The river is very dangerous here, it’s filled with poisonous snakes.”

While I had no idea that a real bridge existed nearby, the local did, which highlights two things:

  1. What may be novel to you, may be old hat to someone else, so before wasting a lot of time and money, see if you can find people with experience.
  2. The importance of exploring multiple options before committing to a difficult path where the consequences of failure are high.

At the end of the day, innovation is a journey of discovery where both the path and the end result are often unknown, which is why it’s important to bound your risks whenever possible. You need leadership that understands not every path leads to success and encourages their teams to try a variety of paths, i.e. what Toyota calls set based design. Instead of investing all your efforts in a single path, you explore multiple options before deciding on the best option.  Otherwise, you risk spending too much effort on a design/path before you even know whether it is the best path forward. While it may mean going slower initially, unless you are very lucky it will save you time and money in the future.

Unfortunately, most organizations operate with an operations/manufacturing mindset, and assume you should know the right path before you begin, which results in people continuing to try to push forward, even when the trail turns into quicksand.

So as you set out on your journey of discovery, have fun, don’t be afraid to explore multiple paths before committing to one, be prepared for the inevitable stumbles and remember that the primary goal is to learn as quickly as possible what works, and what doesn’t work, so that you can make better decisions in the future.

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Uh, where is the path forward? The author trying to find a passable trail on the way from Aconcagua.

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