What innovation methods and martial arts have in common

savate method

Since I’m 16 years old I’ve been practicing martial arts. I started by savate (old french boxing combining arms, legs and stick, hence the illustration of this post). When I went to college, I discovered Jujutsu and in the past 10 years I’ve been given a try to Ninjútsu, Jeet kune do and even a more traditional version of Jujutsu, mixing internal energy and deep knowledge of the human body. I never had the patience to be good at any of these, yet enjoying a lot practicing with peers, learning a lot, and talking with real masters of each discipline. I’ve learned a lot about methods, people who invent them, and people who defend them fanatically . In the last few years, after two failures in building a startup, I’ve been searching a method and discovered Lean Startup (and more specifically Running Lean). I’ve also discovered and practiced Customer Development, Isma360, Design Thinking… I’ve came to believe that there is a lot of similarity with the way innovation methods are seen today.

Methods are invented because something is not right

Whether they are intended to fight or to invent new things, I believe that each method has been developed as a response to a situation that was not satisfying. Take Judo, invented because Jujutsu had become unfashionable in the late 1800s westernized Japan. Take Customer Development, created in the mid 1990s as a reaction to the traditional new product development process, by emphasizing that customer should be involved in the early stage of the process, not only at the end. The fact that it has been (re)invented by Steve Blank, a marketing guy who was in the front line with customers, is not a coincidence.

You can take any method available today, you’ll find the same story : someone fails in a particular situation, blames the method he had used, has a epiphany and decides to develop a new method that will be better. This is what pushes the mankind forward. Lean Startup, Design Thinking, Isma360, Jeet kune do, Kravmaga … any of these methods have been the result of the journey of a man, trying to find a better way.

It’s all about context

I believe there is not a way to objectively evaluate or compare methods, mainly for two reasons.

First, you cannot apply a method by the book : these methods are made to be applicable in real life, and you can be sure of one thing about real life : things won’t work as expected. Second, methods are all applied by people who have their own skills, experience and emotional profile : they apply the method in their own way with some big or small adjustments, consciously or not. Most of the time, we are inspired by a method and don’t follow it blindly : so telling if the method « works » is really impossible.

The right way to evaluate a method is to understand a method original approach : in what context it has been created and in reaction to what specific situation. The next step would be to compare this particular context with the current one, without forgetting that what was good 200 or 20 years ago may not be relevant today.

For instance, Steve Blank compared recently Design Thinking with Customer Development. First I was surprised by the way Mr Blank was describing Design Thinking from a pure business point of view. He is describing Design Thinking as an “another way to understand customer needs”. But design is not only about « customers » . It’s about people and their inspiration. It’s about emotion. Design Thinking is perfect for long term changes, public projects, ONG, etc. It’s great when you have to deeply understand people motivation and history. It’s multipurpose by definition, not for tech projects only, as it states that all kind of knowledge should be included at the start of the project (history, ethnography, science, art, etc.). Design Thinking also states that the problem that is exposed to a Design Thinking team is not framed correctly, and therefore has to be reframed before starting to work. This is a totally specific mindset to adopt, that is possible is very rare situation and probably not in corporate environment.

On the other side, he reminds us that Customer Development was designed for tech companies that have already a product to sell (again a very specific context).

From my point of view, comparing Customer Development with Design Thinking is a waste of time, but I believe Steve Blank reacted to many remarks saying that Customer Development was dead, and that Design Thinking was « the new black » .

Is it wise to mix methods ?

A new method is often perceived as « the new way » of doing something, relegating other methods to rubbish. At that moment, as an entrepreneur or innovator practicing one method, you will have to make a choice : either you have practiced enough one method, getting really good at it and therefore being satisfied with it. Or you won’t resist the hype and won’t capitalize on the time already spent studying the previous method. Mastering a method is really hard : it requires practice, being lost, feeling discouraged. It required commitment and discipline and is not a guarantee for success.

Some people will argue however that one can apply a bit of such or such method and come up with something that works. I believe this is a very dangerous slope, and the result might be counter productive. I will take the example of Jeet kune do as a parable.  JKD was developed by Bruce Lee in the late 1970s after he studied many martial arts and came to the conclusion that something was missing. This method was perfectly designed for someone shaped like him : agile, light, fast and explosive. Actually, he did not wanted Jeet kune do to be considered as a martial art and wanted it to be taught to a selective group of people. If you are 7 feet tall and weight 150 kilos, it will be impossible to benefit from learning Jeet kune do, and you will prefer Kyokushin where physical strength and mental is well adapted to “bear-shaped” people.

The same goes for innovation methods : if you don’t get the essence of the method, its unique history and the context where it was invented, you will just mock the features and won’t get the benefits, because you won’t understand how your context is different or similar to the original context. And you’ll loose a lot of time building your business by not applying the method that fits your situation.

Mixing several methods is however possible if you are the Bruce Lee of innovation : if you have previously practiced intensively different methods, understood the essence of each and in which situation each applies the best, identified which part works for you and have proven results. Mixing different methods in any context (without considering the specificity of the people involved, organization, project, ultimate goal,etc.) is not recommended as you will evolve within a fragmented framework : teamwork requires a solid framework to reference to so people can talk the same language.

At the end of the day, nobody cares about which method you’ve used

Whether you have to protect yourself in the street or build a successful business, people won’t judge you about the way you’ve done it, if you’ve done it right. You will judged about your results. Being an expert of Customer Development and wanting to apply it everywhere is as a nonsense to apply Design Thinking in any situation.

Some engineers still program in Cobol and get the job done. Some project managers deliver successful products with the waterfall method, and my grandmother used to protect my mother from the bad kids in the street running after them with a pan. You could perfectly use these methods for your situation as long as you have evaluated the context and decided it was good for you.

  • You are a designer ?  give a try to design thinking (provided you are a team as it’s really really time consuming)
  • You are a tech, or data driven ?  give a try to running lean
  • You are sales driven ?  definitely dive into customer development
  • You are Marketing ?  Yes, you can explore business opportunities with Growth Hacking methods.
  • You are none of the above ? Go for effectuation !

Resist the hype, invest time and effort and start the hard work of being good at the method that is working for you.

3 thoughts on “What innovation methods and martial arts have in common”

  1. You got it right, Sébastien! Thank you for reminding us that
    the context in which we operate, including who we are, is critical to
    the success of using a methodology.

    I was however surprised seeing Steve Blank make this very superficial
    comparison between Customer Development (which I very well understand)
    and Design Thinking (which I far less understand). It looked to me like
    comparing oranges with carrots, maybe based on similar color. But it
    is probably a sign that Design Thinking is getting out of the design
    teams arena and is entering the business teams arena, whose Steve Blank
    and myself are part of.

    To this end, I like your comparison with martial arts and their evolution over time. It like it because it makes crystal clear why applying Lean Startup to any context, in particular to large corporations, is like trying to practice Jeet kune do while weighing 150kg 🙂 Thanks for the nice metaphor! For example, with all due respects to Steve Blanks and Eric Ries, it’s quite clear that applying Lean Startup per se, which is product/innovation centered, has a few chances to give significant outcomes in large corporations which must leverage and federate several internal teams and departments and must target large-enough marketplaces to be able to reach their business and growth objectives. That’s why such large corporations usually innovate by just buying startups when they have achieved significant business proof and results.

    You are very humble but as far as large corporations are concerned, you may have mentioned that your own Lean Product Management methodology,
    which draws from Lean Startup and many other practices (including Design Thinking, no?), is one of the most achieved and effective methodology for driving innovation in large corporations, with the goal to rapidly reach
    product/market fit and measurable business objectives. It’s true
    that you achieved it because you are a multi fold expert in various
    innovation-related methodologies (as you actually also are in martial
    arts, I ignored it).

    The good news is that all of this is moving in the right direction: cheaply building high-value and profitable businesses in various organizations. Thanks to Steve Blank and Eric Ries to have started this movement, but welcome to other experts as you truly are to enrich it and prevent it from being the Single Thought!

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