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.
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.