I was lucky enough to grow up in Colorado during the beginnings of the sport we now know as mountain biking. It was a serious grunt to power those early, heavy, boat anchor bikes up steep, rocky, narrow trails. Coming downhill your forearms would burn and sometimes cramp as you squeezed the marginally effective brakes hard enough to avoid hitting a tree at 40mph. On those fast descents, our young, stupid, helmetless heads would be engaged in a battle between self-preservation and chasing the joy of flying downhill on two wheels. I’m older, less frequently stupid, helmeted and thanks to decades of innovation, no longer forced to make the same self-preservation/joy tradeoff decisions. Thankfully, there’s been an enormous amount of innovation in mountain biking and maybe a few things we can learn from and apply to innovation in our own organizations.
An organic insight machine – I challenge you to find a more geeked-out, enthusiastic and engaged community than mountain bikers. I’ve had experiences where mere minutes after meeting a total stranger and finding out they ride we are immersed in a deep conversation about the finer points of suspension tuning, frame materials or bike geometry. Even the most casual of riders love talking bikes and have no shortage of insights, opinions, and preferences. Every organization needs an active community of interest as a source of insights.
Technology and the Feedback Loop – New materials, designs and manufacturing advancements have had a profound impact on modern mountain bikes. The introduction of carbon fiber and other materials, sophisticated suspension designs, and a host of other technology-driven improvements have given bike manufacturers much more to work with. BUT, those new technologies have to work well in the real world. A carbon bike that doesn’t use the right frame angles and combinations won’t ride well. Just moving the placement of a suspension system a few millimeters forward or backward on a frame design can enhance or ruin the way a bike rides. Without technology, it would be impossible to have the amazing bikes we have today, but without a robust human feedback loop those technologies would never provide the same quality of experience.
Optimization and Invention – Innovation is both continuous, incremental improvement of existing things (optimization) as well as bold, net-new (inventions.) Our Gartner Innovation Survey indicates that most marketers are split 53/46% on incremental improvement/net-new innovation. Mountain bikes have seen incremental improvement in some areas (tires, seats, etc.) and complete re-inventions in areas like frame and suspension design. Holistic innovation supports exploring both the incremental improvements and big breakthroughs. Good organizations are balanced in their approach.
Innovation upon innovation – It’s been amazing to watch, and experience, the compounding innovations within the sport. The introduction of a new material brings about a new way of manufacturing which creates the opportunity for different designs which in turn may demand alternative types of components that can be used in new configurations and on and on. This evolution upon evolution, change upon change continuously altering the dynamic of the whole industry has created an environment for ongoing innovation that is thrilling and exhausting for the companies that have to play there. Riders enjoy the benefits of a rapidly advancing set of products, but if you’re a bike manufacturer you need to be heavily invested in ongoing innovation. If you operate in a similar space innovation needs to be a core discipline.
New Tribes – In the beginning, “mountain bike” was a singular category. What used to be a single category has since exploded into sub-categories and related tribes. You’ve got your lycra wearing, ultra-fit, cross-country racer types on hyper-light bikes. You’ve got your downhill riders on much heavier bikes that look more like motorcycles. You’ve got trail, enduro, gravel, trials, single-speed, and a host of other categories each with their own culture and desired product attributes. The effects of innovation are not limited to products and services, they also impact the evolution of your audience.
Organizations and industries that maintain a deep, intimate connection to customers, what they want, what they value and the problems they need solved, have the precious raw material to generate useful innovation. Mountain bike innovations may be designed in a lab, built in a factory, and assembled by a local mechanic but make no mistake those innovations were born on trails all over the world.
Wonder if I can expense a new bike as “innovation research?”