The Jiu-Jitsu of Creativity and Innovation

I had an interesting chat the other day with a friend who’s job it is to help companies establish a culture of creativity and innovation. As we talked about the challenges of achieving this, it was clear that identifying both the challenges and obstacles wasn’t as difficult as getting a company to implement the necessary strategies to rectify it. He turned to me and asked, “How would I do it?”

It is clear to me, both as a martial artist, and as an entrepreneur, that creativity that leads to innovation is the winning strategy to out manoeuvre the competition. But it is equally clear from my decades of experience coaching people as a martial artist on the mat, that at our core we seek predictability, and safety in the known. Our education system hasn’t helped much either, with a prescribed one size fits all way to educating everyone, and anyone that seems to deviate from the norm is considered a ‘rebel,’ a ‘trouble maker’ or subject to being diagnosed with ADHD. Companies fair no better, not only are they fighting these embedded psychological and cultural traps that have taught us to remain in our lane, we tell our employees to be creative, to innovate, but in the same breath we tell them not to make any mistakes.

In this sense, I think asking any group of employees to be creative, and innovate on the job, without prior priming in what that actually would look and feel like, is doomed to fail. Employees know, that any mistake, is costly to the companies bottom line. Personally, and to answer my friends question, I feel it would be far more productive and cost effective, to take employees out of their normal working environment, and place them in a new, novel one, where being creative, and innovative, won’t cost them their jobs. I then pointed to the mat, a place, where each week I have CEO’s, managers, entrepreneurs, and everyone in between training in Brazilian jiu-jitsu with me — and while they never came to me to be more creative and innovative — they all constantly tell me how training on the mat, has supercharged their career, their leadership capabilities, and substantially improved their bottom line.

Of course my friend was curious to know how?

My personal view is that creativity emerges when a person is free to take risks, and is allowed to make mistakes that wont end the experience. Creativity then emerges from a person who is free to explore all possibilities, and rather than keeping within their boundaries, explores right to the edge and beyond their boundaries. Creativity then, emerges from a place inside where the concern of making a mistake that would end the experience has been removed. As Pablo Picasso confessed this to a friend, “I don’t know in advance what I am going to put on canvas any more than I decide beforehand what colours I am going to use…Each time I undertake to paint a picture I have a sensation of leaping into space. I never know whether I shall fall on my feet. It is only later that I begin to estimate more exactly the effect of my work.”

Creativity is like that, you only know that it was an act of creation, when what results is considered innovative. But non of this is at all possible if risk is not present. The trick is to be able to take the risk, without being concerned of failing. On the mat I am able to achieve this, by allowing people to explore the full possibilities of their body in movement, by freeing them from consequences. Let me give you an example. In the art of Brazilian jiu-jitsu that I teach, the objective is to wrestle another person, and place that person in some kind of lock. Getting that person in a lock, such as an arm-bar is considered being victories over ones sparring partner. But even though this may happen, the person placed in the lock, can tap at anytime. So while they know they have been beaten — by taping their opponent lets go — and the sparring match, the roll as we call it can go on.

In other words, even though you may have lost for the moment, and you made a mistake — the experience doesn’t end there — you are able to continue, try again and who knows this time you may win. More importantly, the next time you are caught in the same move, you will try new options, and be more creative in getting out. The paradox is, the more times you get caught in the same lock, the less you are likely to get caught in it in the future. In this sense, jiu-jitsu has the inherent risk needed to invoke creativity when you try to find novel ways of not being placed in that lock — but the consequence if you are caught in that lock is only the recognition that you have (i.e., you tap, and your opponent lets go). This is very different to the reality of jiu-jitsu if used for self-defence, where placing that attacker in a lock is designed to actually damage him (i.e., break his arm) so he can no longer hurt you.

As people experience this embodied approach to exploring the world of jiu-jitsu with other people on the mat, they begin to open up, embrace creative ways to both escape, counter and get control of the opponent they are engaging with. What emerges often are innovative solutions to problems, that they thought they were never capable of coming up with on their own. As Anthony Bourdain, American chef, author, and television personality in an interview with Charlie Rose noted,“ [jiu-jitsu] appeals to a part of my brain that I haven’t visited before.” The typical speech I give all my students (and they learn this quickly) is that one has to be creative, both in thought and body to deal with some of the weird places they will end up in when wrestling with another human being. But innovation, the potential myriad of ways out from these holds and pins etc, is simply not possible without taking a risk first. In this sense, there is no creativity, and the innovation that arises from it without risk. Risk is built into the fabric of both of these key qualities.

Taking risk in a business environment is uncomfortable for many people, not withstanding all the potential consequences outlined earlier (somewhat like getting arm-barred for real in self-defense, where tapping is no longer an option). My advice to my friend was this, get that team together that you need to help be more creative and innovative, and let them come play on the mat. The embodied experiences they will have in what could be consider a sandbox, a testing environment, will allow them to have first hand experiences of what it truly feels like to be creative, and to see innovation arise out of that creative exploration — this will then equip them to create the same outcome in their work environment. In conclusion, the irony is often in companies seeking to be more creative and innovative, that to start with, are unable to find creative and innovative ways to invoke the spirit of these two qualities. In this respect, thinking outside the box, is more than simply a metaphor.


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