Developing & Leading Creative-Innovative Teams

For most of my adult working life I haven’t worn a suite and tie. Early on as a kid I had a passion for martial arts, so I took that passion and developed it into a successful career. So much so that the two programs I developed are now taught all over the world. Due to this, and over the past two decades coaching martial arts, I had to develop my own systems, processes and approaches to coaching.

While I may have been taught the techniques by others, and had a lot of information, no one ever showed me how to teach or to coach people to become their best. It was very clear to me early on, that the physical side of teaching, while important — would be a very small part of my overall job.

The truth is all the right information in the world won’t by itself translate into knowledge. Each of us has to in our own way find ways to transform information into personal knowledge. Knowledge then, is the successful implementation of information we have learned. Of course it will be less of a bumpy ride if someone can show us how to make that happen.

Fear of Mistakes Stands in the Way

One of the ‘constructed characteristics’ I see often in my students when it comes to learning is the fear of making mistakes. I say: ‘constructed’ because I believe this is mostly a learned behaviour. Now of course there is our natural, innate tendency to avoid experiences that are dangerous. Just like our fight-flight response kept our ancestors alive, so it does for us today. But much of what we face in modernity, and in the office, isn’t going to eat us.

In my personal experience, and here’s where I agree with Seth Godin, much of the ‘fear of making mistakes’ as adults has been accentuated through how we have been educated in the West. I know it did for me. As Seth notes, “Fear is present in many education settings, because fear’s a cheap way to ensure compliance. “Do this,” the teacher threatens, “or something bad is going to happen to you.”

What Seth is describing I see often on the mat in training. Students are afraid of failure. As a side note, my students range from CEO’s, entrepreneurs, managers, etc. Bottom line, I have a student group as diverse as any fortune 500 company. This embodied state of not wanting to experience failure (because I think it goes way deeper than simply how someone thinks) has a devastating knock-off effect. It gets in the way of learning, of reaching one’s full potential and of experiencing joy. When I suggest to my students that joy, profound learning and development can be found in messing up, they look at me as if I have gone mad.

Consulting with Teams to Create & Innovate

Over the past few years I have been consulting as an Inner Fitness Strategist and working with companies (Yes, I have almost put that suite and tie on). Not being immersed in this world previously, I believe has given me somewhat of an edge.

My previous world of teaching martial arts has always been about bringing the best out of people. I have achieved this by teaching my students ways to overcome their inner most fears, to be creative, to innovate, to be adaptable and in doing so achieve excellence. In my world, its all about how well you are doing right now on the mat and learning decisions are made in that moment to make things even better.

Over the past couple of years however, as I have been sitting and listening to CEO’s, team-leaders and managers from various organisations — I have noticed two core ideas that are raised often in conversation. There is always a discussion about how best to invoke creativity and innovation in teams. From a strategic stand point all great organisations know that to stay competitive in our ever accelerating, complex business world, creativity and innovation are crucial to continued success. Naturally, this starts by encouraging those capacities in those who work in our organisations.

The question I pose to team-leaders is that if creativity, leading to innovation is necessary for your organisations success, how do you go about teaching this to your team?

Sure they can give me academic definitions, or describe what it should look like, but they often seem at a loss for words on how to actually make the magic happen.

Taking into account our schools incessant focus on getting things just right through whom ever has the highest marks, or the fear of embarrassment of messing up at work, I am not surprised that companies have a hard time building innovative teams. You can tell people all day long that you want them to be creative, and to be innovative — but saying it, and getting someone to be that is a whole different ball game.

I’ve been lucky in the martial arts world to have had full control over the environment I create on the mat for my students. I am a firm believer that environment informs behaviour. My mat, the place my students train, is a place of challenge play. As such, I created a teaching model around this philosophy that I refer to as the Challenge Play Method. Over the years of teaching martial arts this way, something interesting has happened. Many of my students (and as I noted many are CEO’s etc) have come back to me and told me how much my approach to learning has helped them supercharge their business, their careers, and organisations.

To this end I developed a workshop called the Inner Fitness Resiliency experience. This workshop is built upon my challenge play approach to learning. The ultimate goal of the workshop is to teach participants inner fitness skills that invoke personal adaptability, which in-turn inspires creativity in innovative players. This is done through engaging a person through their entire body in action, working through body based drills that encourage exploring messing up. Messing up, failure, then leads to inner creative insights, and innovative change in the workshop itself. Those skills then, because we approach them from an embodied, whole person perspective, are far more likely to show up for real in life and work. The approach I take to learning goes beyond just thinking about the ideas of creativity and innovation, but ‘knowing’ them. As such you can think of the workshop as building personal resiliency.

Th truth is, if you want people to be creative, and to be innovative, first you have to remove the ‘risk barriers’ that render people unable to play again. People need to know, that they can take risks, without the consequences of making a mistake being so high that they simply cannot come back and play (i.e., try) again. Crucially people need the experiences of failure to learn a very different way of showing up. Companies who want their team-members to be creative and innovative, but never teach them how to embrace the experience of failure and risk within themselves, and what to do about it — will never move past business as usual.

To get anywhere beyond the norm, one has to first accept that risk is inherently built into the fabric of creativity and innovation (and you have to teach that).

The reality is without risk there is not enough creative tension for innovation to emerge.

Much of the reason people really fail and never recover, is because they are never allowed to fail, and as such, never see it as a learning moment. Often as pointed out earlier the consequences of failing are perceived to be to high. In most instances however this is not the case. Almost never is a mistake we make life or death. If you don’t allow for team-members to experience the lessons in failure, then they can never explore their full potential because they are simply to afraid too.

So the question then, and rightfully so, how would this look like in practice?

The End Goal: Personal-Adaptability

To understand the goal of the Challenge Play Method (CPM) and the workshop in general, you first need to know what’s the end goal.

If I could summarise one overriding attribute that I want to develop in everyone: it would be adaptability.

Adaptability could mean different things, depending on context, but in this case ‘personal-adaptability’ means the ability to be resilient. Here a person through choosing the appropriate ways to manage their inner fitness, are able to adapt themselves along with organisations/team goals to what is unfolding. In other words, resilience is the ability not only bounce back from set-backs, but equally about the ability to adapt accordingly to where one may find themselves without becoming stuck.


Before a someone can be personally-adaptable, they have to be able to self-innovate. Self-innovation requires the willingness to be a creative problem solver. Arising out of innovation is the ability to be nimble to ever changing circumstances. In other words adaptability.

What does self-innovation mean?

Simply to create a new way of being in the moment, driven from the activation of inner-fitness tools to overcome an existing or future problem. But in the end, adaptability only follows self-innovation. No self-innovation, no adaptability!

Personal-Creativity, Risk & Failure

“If you aren’t experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: you are being driven by the desire to avoid it.” – Pixar co-founder Edwin Catmull

Creativity: textbooks have been written about this one concept and philosopher’s have argued over it for centuries.

Personal-creativity leads to self-innovation, which then leads to being adaptable. At it’s heart, personal-creativity is the use of imagination of the impossible or original way of being to create something new.

The question then is how does one allow for the personal-creative process to unfold?

What I suggest here may seem counter to how most people view success, but for a someone to be personally-creative, you have to allow for risk and further, built within risk is failure. As noted earlier failure, especially in the West is frowned upon. Most people grow up to believe that failure of any kind should be avoided at all costs. Much of the anxiety and ego we may encounter in team-members is due to this one idea of not ever being exposed to failure as an opportunity to learn, to grow, and to adapt.

Now the truth is often the only opportunity a person has to practise skills pertaining to their work performance is in the crucible of work itself. Depending on the kind of work a person does, those actions could potentially have substantial consequences if they fail. Because of this, it is highly unlikely that a person would use their actual work environment in the first instance to actively practise and engage in personal-creativity, without prior training and practice in those approaches first.

This is why I developed the Inner Fitness Resiliency (IFR) Workshop. The IFR workshop which consists of action oriented accessible embodied practices. This allows participants to both train in and experience personal-creativity, leading self-innovation and an adaptable stance to obstacles in a safe environment first — prior to being asked to apply it to their professional lives. Crucially is that I believe that creativity and innovation as a whole on an organisational level, can only arise when each individual of a team has had the courage to invoke those capacities within themselves first.

The training environment of my workshop thus allows participants to pause, reflect on the experience being taught, ask questions, troubleshoot, and/or reset when necessary. The workshop is set up in such a way that failing will naturally happen, risk will be needed in order to be personally-creative, and self-innovation will only emerge when one learns to be adaptable to change. Of course on the way many teaching moments are presented. This initial embodied practice then, in my experience is absolutely crucial before participants can ever be asked to apply these new inner fitness skills (i.e., a personal-creative-innovative approach) they just learned to their work environment.

What’s the Takeaway Here?

At the heart of any organisation seeking to encourage creativity and innovation, what they should be striving for is adaptable-resilient team members. Those who are, are far more likely to self-as well as organisationally innovate. Their ability to do so stems from personal-creativeness. They are able to do this because they have experienced an opportunity whereby they got to risk failure, and in doing so learned ways to manage all the inherent traps that come along with that fear of failure.


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