I am in a very unique position in martial arts. Unlike many of my contemporaries in that industry who focus either on the competitive or self defence aspects of training, my focus and work with clients centers on helping them take the powerful embodied experiences from the mat, into the world. In this regard, my clients, use the lessons from the mat, to help them achieve success in life.

What follows is an approach I have successfully used on the mat to help my clients be more creative, and innovative. Just as these two ideas are touted in the business world as the mark of successful companies and people — so is this equally important in the success of martial art excellence.

Creativity & Innovation = Risk

Inherent in the makeup of both creativity and innovation is risk. My experience is that, while creativity and innovation are thrown around a lot in conversations in respect to competitive advantage, little or no discussion focuses on the real reason it is so difficult to implement. Most people are generally risk averse (blame evolution here). There are consequences to taking risks, and while some are real ( but mostly often imagined), the very nature of risk and its cousin failing hold many people back from achieving any kind of measurable success.

Nowhere is this more evident than on the mat in sparring. When someone is throwing punches at your face, coming up with creative solutions and innovating them into existence can be a scary proposition. The consequence of course should they fail, is, well you get punched in the face. Most people simply try to cover and survive, or worse still, try a repeated failed strategy over and over, in hopes of a different result.

The paradox however is that, in order to deal with someone throwing punches at your face, you are going to have to be creative with your approach, think of new ways of moving to meet the challenge, and then have the confidence to put these embodied ideas into practice. Again, the reason why so many people have a hard time with this, is because of the fear of taking risk. Like it or not, even if you were shown what to do on the mat itself, in sparring against and uncooperative opponent — which is a world of chaos — you have no idea what the opponent is going to do in the next moment any better than he or she does. You have to react, be adaptable, and yes, come up with creative solutions in the moment, and innovate them into existence — all while someone is trying to hurt you. I have seen the most well put together people completely freeze in these moments.

Naturally anyone taking up martial arts would like to improve their performance. But, if each time when that moment comes they choke, eventually they will give up. The first step I took as a coach was to tackle the main problem head on; the fear of risk. No one is going to be creative or innovative if the consequence of taking risk is to high. For example, if you step on the mat with me and we are sparring. You take some risk, by being creative and trying new things — but I then punch you so hard that I knock you out — you simply will refuse to ever try anything new again, or think outside the box. Simply the consequences of being creative was just to high.

However if I challenge you, just above your comfort zone, but in a playful way, where you know that I am simply trying to tag you with a punch, and not knock you out, then you will be more inclined to take risk, and when you do take that risk, creativity and innovation become a natural byproduct.

My experience has taught me, people are in fact, when give the opportunity, naturally creative and innovative. Sadly most of us lose this innate capacity once we grow up (watch Sir Ken Robinson’s talk on Why Schools Kill Creativity). What holds us back is fear. Fear of failure. Fear of looking bad. Fear of the consequences.

If you want people to be creative, and to be innovative, first you have to remove the barrier of the type of risk that renders people unable to ever play again. People need to know, that they can take risk, without the consequences being so high, that they simply cannot come back and play again (as in my example earlier of being knocked out).

5 Key Observations For Inspiring Creativity and Innovation

Over the years I have taken the time to develop a model that inspires creativity and innovation on the mat. Inherent in this model is the following main ingredients;

  1. Recognise that risk is inherently built into the fabric of creativity and innovation. I will argue that without risk, creativity and innovation no longer exist.
  2. In order for people to take risk, the environment they are asked to do this in must be a place where risk is not only allowed, but the consequences or payback of taking that risk shouldn’t be so high that a person can never come back and try again.
  3. In order to facilitate risk, one requires a shift in mindset, one from competition to challenge play. In competition one person, or group of people have to lose in order for another to win. In a challenge play environment, people are encouraged to shift from playing within boundaries (i.e., rules of winning) to playing with the boundaries (i.e., finding ways to continue to play). Bottom line the seriousness needs to be taken out, the focus on winning, not looking bad, or the fear of making mistakes needs to be removed, and instead a sense of play should be instilled.
  4. What emerges are people who are no longer seeking to dominate with power, but rather play with strength. Much of the reason people fail is because they are never allowed to fail. Often as pointed out earlier the consequences of failing are to high. If you cannot fail, then you can never explore your full potential because you are simply to afraid too. In my experience environments that don’t allow people to fail, become the exclusive domain of the tough, the alpha’s, the bullies — and we can argue that it is this outmoded way of being, that continues to be prevalent and a source of disappear in our modern world and organisations.
  5. Playing is the antidote to severe consequences of taking risk. Taking risk shouldn’t be about keeping score, or time, rather it should be about finding ways to generate time. It should be an experience that anyone, regardless of experience or status should be able to engage in. In this environment everyone will meet someone who can play with exceptional skill and offer the necessary challenge for personal growth and game development to take place. But here winning and losing take on a different definition and role, rather than being seen as the end of the game, they are simply seen as moments in the continuation of play itself. The ultimate objective is not for the game to end — be that in sparring or in business — but rather for the play to continue. This is making ART (see Seth Godin for more on this). Art is the final byproduct that we see when there has been successful implementation of creativity and innovation.