A good innovation lesson from “Naked & Afraid XL”

I’m a fan of the Discovery Channel show, Naked & Afraid. I have a lot of respect for anyone that can make it a single night on that show, let alone going the whole distance.

I just remembered something from last summer’s Naked & Afraid XL season that is a good lesson on innovation for business.

First some background on the show…

The regular Naked & Afraid show pairs a man and woman on a 21 day primitive survival challenge in a remote wilderness. Participants start with no clothes and one survival item of their choosing.

The XL version of the show puts several groups of previous Naked & Afraid participants in the same wilderness for a 40 day challenge. The groups eventually meet over the course of the 40 days and decide how to work together, or not.

In last summer’s XL, a super skilled pair, Jeff and Laura, started 20 days ahead of everyone else to try for a 60 total day challenge (spoiler alert: they succeeded).

Participants lucky enough to survive the 21 day challenge usually do it by starving most of the way, while burning calories stored in their body fat. Most are lucky if they get a few bites of food in the 21 days.

How does this relate to business and innovation?

I think the show provides an apt and tangible analogy to how business works.

The participant’s fat stores, survival item and skills are like the existing value proposition of a business, those products that are selling well enough to keep the business going.

On the show, this is translated into making and maintaining a shelter, fire and obtaining water. This activity takes a good deal of the participant’s energy resources.

Acquiring food on the show is like a business’s innovation efforts. Acquiring enough calories in an unfamiliar wilderness to maintain body weight is a low probability game of chance.

Few participants ever have have enough success at gathering calories to make it out of the challenge without consuming a good deal of their own fat stores (i.e. losing weight). At the end of the show, the narrator summarizes how much weight each participant lost over the course of the challenge. It’s usually 20-30 pounds.

This caloric deficit is okay for a challenge with a definitive end. But, to survive longer participants would need to find ways to take in more calories than they burn.

Good innovators

Jeff and Laura were very successful at finding food, which is a key reason they made it 60 days.

After they met some of the other participants, they chose to live separate, for awhile. But, they were in close proximity of the other groups.

Those groups got annoyed at Jeff and Laura’s success at catching eels in a creek. Those groups were also trying to catch fish in the same creek and near the same spots.

This is my paraphrased recollection of how Jeff explained their success:

One hook as a 5-10% chance of catching a fish each day. With one hook, it might take you 10 days to catch something. With 10 hooks in the water you should catch something on one of them every day or two and with 20 you can catch 1-2 things a day.

In other words, it’s all about playing the odds. It paid off because he and Laura were catching something about every day or two.

The other group caught one thing after 5 days of anguish.

At one point, earlier in the season, another guy who (like Jeff) had brought a set of fishing hooks as his survival item, spent hours on the ocean fishing with one hook. He really, really wanted to catch something for his teammates.

He didn’t catch anything except a really bad sunburn that put him out of commission for a day or two.

Jeff and Laura’s success resulted primarily from having 10-20 hooks in the water. The other groups were using 2-3 hooks at a time.

The odds never seemed to occur to the other groups. They just kept plugging away with their belief and hope that they should get enough food with 2-3 hooks.

The difference in recognizing the odds and not recognizing them reminded me of how various company managers approach innovation.

Companies that innovate well tend to approach innovation like Jeff and Laura approached fishing in the wild — put out as many hooks as possible. They see it as an odds game and they play the odds.

They know the odds of any one project succeeding are low, so it’s best to try lots of things.

Companies that don’t innovate well remind me of the less successful Naked and Afraid XL groups, who put two to three hooks in the water at a time and hope for the best.

Sometimes, they even remind me of the guy who spent the day fishing in the ocean with one hook, hoping for the best, with the only result being a really bad sun burn.

They simply don’t know the odds or they think they can overcome them by doing “smart” things like picking good spots to fish or choosing the right bait.

In the business world, this is called market research and consultants that help devise plans that are ‘sure to work.’

Eventually, these companies starve themselves because they don’t find enough viable innovations to keep the competition from getting an edge on them.

When they look back on the decline of their business, they often mistakenly attribute the lack of success to picking the wrong spots to fish.

Even then, they don’t realize that they were putting an order of magnitude fewer hooks in the water than they needed to survive the long-term.

I will add that Jeff also was good at picking out spots. With many more trials behind him, because he used more hooks each day, he learned about good spots faster.

That may have helped him, but it still didn’t materially improve his chances over the 5-10% chance per day of catching something on one hook.

The lesson there is that doing smart sounding things might help your odds, marginally, but that is likely to be an order of magnitude less effective as getting more hooks in the water.

Get more hooks in the water.


A balance in how people think problems should be solved

One thing I wonder about is why there seems to be close to even balance between folks who think the way to solve problems is from the top down and those who think bottom up problem solving is better.

For a deeper source on these two visions, I recommend Thomas Sowell’s book, “A Conflict of Visions.”

Those with the top down vision will tend to think that the way to solve global warming is with governments enforcing standards on us, which is top down.

Those with the bottom up vision will tend to think that innovative solutions from people tinkering in their garage might be a better way to attack the problem.

Or education, those with the top down vision will support having one standard for education ‘that works’ and just implementing that.

Those with the bottom up vision think that one standard is elusive and impractical, because few things are ‘one size fits all’ and will tend to support more local approaches to education.

Or, even in soccer. Those with the top down vision think that improving soccer in a country is a matter of the country’s soccer federation doing the right things.

Those with bottom up vision believe the answer is more in the grassroots and incentives to encourage folks other than the federation to solve soccer’s problems.

I have not seen a good explanation for why there’s close a 50/50 split in this thinking. Is there a good explanation?

Living in a Crowded Bubble

Last night at the grocery store I found myself experiencing what I call crowded bubble phenomenon.

The store was pretty empty, except wherever I happened to be. No matter where I was, someone would pop out of nowhere to obstruct my path, get in front of what I was looking at or compete for a last item on the shelf.

This happens on occasion. Sometimes while shopping, while driving or at a restaurant. Sometime while buying things online. It seems that it often happens that whenever I get the urge to buy something, lots of others do at the same time.

While driving, it manifests in several ways. Sometimes a slow driver is in front of me, going 10 mph below the speed limit. As they turn off I think I have a clear run ahead, another driver pulls out in front of me with the same 10 mph below speed limit.

I look around and there is nobody for a half a mile behind us or ahead of us.

Or, as I’m driving on a highway, at nearly every on ramp someone is merging in at just the right placement to cause me to have to change lanes or slow down. Usually, though, just as the merging car is getting up to speed, another car in the left lane pops out of nowhere to keep me from moving over.

It happens enough that even passengers notice and comment on it.

In restaurants, my family refers to this as ‘my fans,’ as in, ‘it looks like your fans have arrived.’ More often than not, they usually arrive after me, rather than before me, so that does seem like a bit of good luck.

We often get to a restaurant just as there is a small wait for a table, and within a minute or two, the restaurant gets slammed.

It might make sense if we often go to restaurants on the front side of normal dining hours. But, these instances really stand out when it happens outside of normal dining hours.

Just last week, I went to a BBQ restaurant to grab some food for a family gathering at about two in the afternoon. It was empty when I arrived, but within in five minutes it was jammed packed. I had to laugh.

Now, all of this could just be cases of confirmation bias. That is, I notice and put more weight on the times when these happen and don’t put as much weight on when they don’t. And, I will admit there are times when they don’t happen.

But, I really start to wonder when folks who aren’t with me all the time notice, as well.

US soccer youth need role models

Here’s another good Coaching Soccer Weekly podcast.

In part of it, host Mura and his guest discussed coaching teams of different ages. Mura said he has coached U9 and U17 girls teams at the same time and felt it was beneficial for both ages.

In this post, I proposed that a key missing ingredient in US youth soccer was the lack of a immediate role models for younger players to aspire to.

Our structure prevents it, while the club structure in other countries fosters it.

There the club’s first team is the equivalent of our high school/local college team. But there are couple huge differences.

There, the 1st teamers don’t disappear for half the year during a high school season. They are always at the club for the younger kids to see and build relationships with.

There, the 1st and 2nd teamers coach the young ones to keep costs down. So, the young kids get to know some of the 1st teamers and want to watch them play and emulate them.

There, the clubs also tend to have their own grounds, so it’s common for players of all ages to get to know each other and for mixed age play to occur. Here, most clubs get space wherever they can and it often means that club members don’t ever see each other or get to know each other because they practice at different places.

U.S. youth have nothing like this on a systematic basis. It may happen by accident in some clubs, like Mura’s, but it’s not the norm.

I think this helps the younger kids work on their long-term development so they can someday play like their role models someday.

Since kids in the U.S. don’t have these role models, they are content to be the best on their team at something and aren’t interested working toward being able to play like a role model someday.

I heard Mura echo some of this in the podcast and say we need more mixing of the age groups. He said the younger girls looked up to the older girls and wanted to play like them.

He mentioned another dynamic I hadn’t thought about. He said it was beneficial for the older girls, too. They adopted the younger girls like they were little sisters and they enjoyed encouraging and helping them out.

That made me think it might help a 17 year-old to see younger kids to see how far they have come. People tend to forget that development is a years long process and they seem to think that how good they are now is how good they have always been.

Preventing injuries in soccer

The last Coaching Soccer Weekly podcast with health care professional from the HSS Sports Safety Program about sports injuries is worth a listen.

It’s the first I’ve heard anyone support my pet theory that sports injuries are caused more by improper body positioning than overuse. The HSS program offers a free 10-15 minute online course (at the link above) to teach proper technique for accelerating, decelerating and changing direction.

I’m going to check it out.

I explained my pet theory last year in my post, The case for juggling.

It’s all about forces. When your body is in proper position, game forces are spread across the body evenly. I think proper position is shoulders, hips, knees and toes are contained within a rectangle.

Reaching outside of that rectangle results in concentrating game forces into smaller areas of the body and are more likely to results in breaks or tears in muscle tissue. That might be someone reaching out with their foot to make a tackle and concentrating all the force from the ball and player behind the ball into the ACL, for example.

It just so happens same position is also most effective for executing soccer’s skills.

You will win more tackles if you aren’t reaching because you will have your body weight on your side.

Staying in that position improves everything — dribbling, passing, receiving and even defending.

That’s one reason why training proper technique on soccer skills is important. It not only makes for better players that can make it to higher levels, but it also reduces the chance of injury.

I also think that the perceived ‘rise in sports injuries,’ (if there is one), is more due to having more teenagers in the sport who don’t know proper ball technique. Bad technique + the weight and strength of teenagers = damage.

The podcast host offered another theory to explain the purported rise in sports injuries: kids not getting a lot of free physical play time as kids, and never learning the motor skills to keep them in proper position.

Anyway…I enjoyed that Coaching Soccer Weekly podcast and I recommend it.

One reason why competition is good

Two days before Thanksgiving my washer broke. I went to Lowe’s to purchase another one.

It was to be delivered the day after Thanksgiving.

Lowe’s called us that day to let us know they didn’t have it in stock and wasn’t sure when they would get it.

On Monday, I followed up to see if they knew when it would be delivered. They still couldn’t give me a firm date.

I called another place. They had it in stock and could deliver on Wednesday. After it was delivered I went to Lowe’s to get a refund.

I clicked the link on my email receipt from Lowe’s to let them know about their service break. “Sorry, it has been more than 7 days since your purchase so this survey is no longer active.”

I had to laugh.

A few days after receiving the washer from the other place, I received a follow-up call from them to see how everything went.

I never heard from Lowe’s.

The Lowe’s service break was cascading errors that were four deep. Had any of those been caught and corrected on the spot, the experience could have been saved.

It’s with experiences like this that I’m thankful for competition.

It’s easy to get lured into the efficiency argument of a single provider for anything — just think how much overhead and redundancy that saves.

But, it also means you are at the mercy of that single provider when things don’t go well and you can’t just pick up the phone or visiting a competitor’s website to solve it, like I did.

Second order effects in retailing

As I shop for the holidays, I have encountered more than just by random chance items where the website claims “Hurry, Only 1 Left in Stock!”

I’m sure a randomized control trial somewhere showed that this message creates a sense of urgency and increases the conversion rate for those viewing the item.

However, I also find myself thinking that I don’t really care to frequent retailers that have such thin inventory where every purchase feels like a bidding war to get that last item, especially when we’re talking about relatively mundane, everyday items.

I prefer retailers that carry deep inventory in such items so that I can feel confident that the effort I put into visiting their website or store will give be rewarded with actually being able to obtain the item.

I predict that a second order consequence of this inventory messaging may decrease returning shoppers.

“You only need a small percentage of companies to succeed in order to have a strong economy”

In his book, Loserthink, Scott Adams has a take on a capitalism similar to Rory Sutherland’s in the previous post (and Nassim Taleb). He also expands this to scientific discovery. (Bold added).

Luckily for us, the scientific method is more reliable than human certainty, and it allows for a lot of failure, so long as some things turn out to be right. Most experiments fail. Many published scientific papers turn out to be wrong, or at least imperfect. But you only need a small percentage of rightness in all of that science to move society forward. It doesn’t matter how many times science is wrong so long as sometimes it is right and the good stuff sticks around. To put it in sporting terms, no one cares how many fish you didn’t catch. They only care about the ones you did.

Capitalism is similar to both science and fishing in that it is largely a failure machine. Most startups fail, for example, and most companies eventually go out of business, one way or another. But while all that failing is happening, employees are getting paid, vendors are selling products and services to the doomed businesses while it lasts, and the economy chugs along. You only need a small percentage of companies to succeed in order to have a strong economy.

You might be tempted to think successful companies all have smart founders who see the world clearly, and that skill set is what helps them succeed. But the reality is that entrepreneurs are making educated guesses and talking themselves into a degree of certainty that the facts do not support. People buck the odds because they don’t believe those odds apply to their situations. And it’s a good thing this sort of irrationality exists, because otherwise people wouldn’t take risks and the economy would fall apart.

I’ll add that I think some founders talk themselves into a degree of certainty that the facts don’t support.

But, I also think lots of founders have a fundamentally different view on risks and failure than us average folks. They don’t mind either. They see the alternative — punching the clock for a boss — as worse. When they fail, they don’t take it personally. They learn and move on.


“a system that did not ensure the survival of lucky accidents would lose most of its value”

In his book, Alchemy, Rory Sutherland explains Nassim Taleb’s Anti-Fragile well in terms of free markets (bold added):

It is never-mentioned, slightly embarrassing but nevertheless essential facet of free market capitalism that it does not care about reasons — in fact it will often reward lucky idiots. You can be a certifiable lunatic with an IQ of 80, but if you stumble blindly on an underserved market niche at the right moment, you will be handsomely rewarded. Equally you can have all the MBAs money can buy and, if you launch your genius idea a year too late (or too early), you will fail.

To people who see intelligence as the highest virtue, this all seems hopelessly unmeritocratic, but that’s what makes markets so brilliant; they are happy to reward and fund the necessary, regardless of the quality of reasoning. Perhaps people don’t ‘deserve’ to be rewarded for being lucky, but a system that did not ensure the survival of lucky accidents would lose most of its value. Evolutionary progress, after all, is the product of lucky accidents. Similarly, a system of businesses that kept empty restaurants, say, open through subsidy, simply because there seemed to be some good reasons for their continued existence, would not lead to happy outcomes.

The theory is that free markets are principally about maximising efficiency, but in truth, free markets are not efficient at all. Admiring capitalism for its efficiency is like admiring Bob Dylan for his singing voice: it is to hold a healthy opinion for an entirely ridiculous reason. The market mechanism is loosely efficient, but the idea that efficiency is its main virtue is surely wrong, because competition is highly inefficient. Where I live I can buy groceries from about eight different places; I’m sure it would much more efficient if Waitrose, M&S, Lidl and the rest were merged into one huge ‘Great Grocery Hall of The People’.

The missing metric here is semi-random variation. Truly free markets trade efficiency for market-tested innovation that is heavily reliant on luck. The reason this inefficient process is necessary is because most of the achievements of consumer capitalism were never planned and are explicable only in retrospect, if at all.