Is Innovation a Skill?

I’m a mountain biker. I like descending quickly on steep difficult trails. It’s exciting. When I’m doing it well, I’m making many quick decisions that can result in a mental flow in which I anticipate each obstacle, and I feel connected with the mountain and the universe in some mystical way. When I’m not doing it well, I’m still happy to be out riding with the opportunity to achieve that mental flow.

Full suspension mountain bikes, especially ones designed for downhill riding (yes, mountain bikes have use-specific design), have long-travel shocks and forks to help absorb energy while falling — no, descending — off big obstacles. Downhill bikes also have dropper seats that allow the rider to lower the seat so they can get their butt low and back over the back tire. Keeping your weight back while descending over large steep obstacles is the key to avoiding sticking your front tire on a landing and flipping over the handlebars. When I see videos of professional downhill mountain bikers going fast down steep rocky trails, I often think of the Toy Story movie in which Woody tells Buzz Lightyear he’s not flying: He’s just falling with style.

It turns out falling with style on a mountain bike takes a good bike and a lot of skill. The consequences can be significant. I always wear a full-face helmet, elbow and knee pads, and sometimes even a flak jacket. I’ve had some spectacular and many less impressive crashes. When learning to mountain bike, one of the first skills acquired, almost always the hard way, is how to crash and minimize injury. This isn’t a fancy skill. You won’t find much video of it on the Internet. It usually involves knowing you’re out of control and will crash but, at the last minute, forcing your weight left or right to crash in the dirt, rather on the rock or root. I’ve done a lot of this. Thankfully, as my other skills improve, I rely less on the how-to-crash-and-still-be-able-to-ride skill.

For me, the fun of mountain biking, especially downhill, is the skill progression and learning. At first, you’re just trying to get down the trail without injury. Over time as your skills improve, you find ways to get down the trail faster or to ride more difficult trails. If you ride the same trails often, you can experience objective skill improvement. The trail doesn’t change that much. (Within a category of use and quality, bikes are similar, too.) The big variable is rider skills. These skills are a mix of physical and mental abilities like line choice (going over or around particular obstacles, while considering the obstacle that follows), body position (left, right, front, back, high, low), speed (downhill speed is provided by seemingly unlimited gravity), how much to brake and when, on which or both wheels, and last but most significant, confidence. Confidence is a skill developed through challenge, success, and failure. The trick is to keep challenging yourself incrementally, so successes are understood, and failures aren’t catastrophic.

As we help our customers to innovate, I get to witness a similar skill progression. At first, our customers are just trying something new while not screwing things up too badly. With some incremental successes, failures, and learnings from each, confidence is developed. By continuing to challenge themselves, they begin to anticipate their obstacles and eventually use innovation to create competitive advantage and lead their industries.

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