Breakthrough Innovation

January 29, 2009

So what does firewalking have to do with innovation?

Filed under: Observations,Strategy,Techniques — mosesma @ 2:21 am

Firewalking and innovation? What the heck?

Before I answer that, let me start with a question for you… what is the core of innovation? The most important factor or ingredient? Some would say it’s inspiration or pure brains. Others would say it’s perspiration or hard work. However, I believe that the true essence of innovation is courage… and in business, this translates into the rare ability to persevere when everyone around you is giving up. It’s about enjoying a persistence of vision so strong that virtually no hardship can deter you. Therefore, I believe that fearlessness is the true essence of the innovative spirit. The difference between a common and an exceptional life is the combination of courage and vision, and that is the difference between a common and an exceptional company as well.

firewalk1There’s a reason that motivational experts like Tony Robbins uses the firewalk, and in fact, has led over 200,000 people through the process. Because it works. For example, motivational coach David Fabricius reported that after leading the employees of a major bank through the firewalk process, one division at a time – every division reported a spike in revenues in the quarter directly following their firewalk event. An average of 130% greater revenues! Peggy Dylan, the founder of the Sundoor firewalking school, reports a similar jump in revenues after leading a national real estate chain had every brokerage office – one at a time – go through the firewalk process.

Therefore, the first reason for considering a firewalk exercise within the context of innovation training is because the firewalk is a remarkably effective tool for transforming the fear that limits the human mind. If every human being believed fervently that flight is impossible, then the possibility of flight could never exist. Add a little personal fear to the equation and it becomes a major paradigm that needs shifting. You need powerful tools to break through such rigid belief.

An innovator fundamentally needs to believe that the impossible is possible, which drives the need to push beyond his limits to prove he’s right. On the flip side, the greatest inhibitor to innovation is the inability to see that the thing that stops us from innovating is actually within ourselves. As long as we blame others for why we can’t innovate, we’ll never break through to true innovation. But that moment you successfully cross a bed of hot coals with your bare feet… you stand there knowing in your bones, that anything is possible.

It would probably be good to take a second and address the question you probably have on your  mind… “is this firewalking stuff for real?” The answer is yes. Firewalking is real, and it isn’t a trick. People do get burned at firewalks, but it isn’t anywhere near as dangerous as something like skydiving. The most colorful story about getting burned at a firewalk was when a TV physicist, Jearl Walker, set out to prove it’s a hoax… and ended up with second degree burns. With a certified firewalk instructor running the show, burns are actually quite rare.

The second question is probably, “how does it work?” The answer isn’t clear. As a former physicist, I’d say that there are many factors at work. For a shorter “training fire”, less than 10 feet long and with relatively cool coals, the Leidenfrost effect (steam formation separating your skin from the coal) and low heat conductivity through ash are in effect. But when you talk about walking over 40 feet of coals, or even over hot lava, like Huna shamans do in Hawaii, there’s clearly more at work. There’s definitely a bit of mind over matter happening, which needs to be experienced first hand to validate.

Third question, “who was crazy enough to think it up in the first place?” Actually, firewalking has been around for over four thousand years, practiced by Eastern Orthodox Christians in parts of Greece and Bulgaria during some religious feasts, to fakirs in India who live by begging and performance of such feats, to the Kung bushmen in the African Kalahari desert who use fire in their healing ceremonies, to young girls in Bali in a ceremony called Sanghyang Dedari – in which the girls are said to be possessed by beneficent spirits, to the Yamabushi sect in Japan – practitioners of Shugendo – an interesting mix of shamanism, Taoism and Buddhism, to Vikings who used to walk over red hot chains, to Hawaiian shamans who walk over molten lava. It’s one of the most prevalent ritual phenomena throughout the world… and now it’s arrived in America and taught by motivational speakers!

The more important question is why it was used as a ritual all over the world for thousands of years? Clearly, people used as fire ritual to unlock the mind’s healing power or as inspiration to find better luck for hunting and farming. But at a deeper level, I believe that people needed something physical to transcend their fears, to release that energy into movement and change, to validate personally their courage in the face of despair.

As a way of bringing this conversation back to innovation, let me talk about what I think was humanity’s finest example of courage in the face of despair – the Battle of Thermopylae. Maybe you’ve seen the movie 300? You know, it’s the one about the 300 Spartan warriors who held off the army of King Xerxes of Persian in 480 BC at the narrow pass by the sea. The army of Xerxes was so large – estimated by some scholars to be as large as a million soldiers – his soldiers would drink rivers dry. When his archers let fly, the arrows would block out the sun. To this, a Spartan warrior named Dieneces retorted, “Excellent, then we will be able to fight in the  shade.” This small band of 300 warriors held off the army of Xerxes long enough to allow Greece the time it needed to marshal the forces necessary to win the larger war.


My favorite quote from the history of the Spartans – when Xerxes tried to bribe the Spartan king, offering him all of Greece to rule, King Leonidas replied, “Tell Xerxes this. If he understood what is honorable in life, then he would no longer try taking things that belong to others. For me to die for my people is a far greater honor than he can ever offer.”

Now, imagine your company under the pressure of the worst recession in decades. Sales projections look pretty ugly. Your customers are going under. Another wave of layoffs is imminent. What does the rank and file do? Get scared and demotivated? Start sending out resumes just in case? Start drinking more heavily?

Now imagine what if – what if your 300 most courageous employees rose up, and formed a cadre of engineers and product marketers, to say, “we know there’s a salary and hiring freeze, but we want to help, we want to work harder, we want to increase innovation, we want to find ways to increase sales… please let us bring the battle to them!” What if your 300 best and brightest said to you, “when the economy hits us this hard, all we want to do is hit back harder!”

Now, wouldn’t that moment choke you up, just a little bit?

This is why we say that the core of innovation is courage. This is why we added exercises like the firewalk, walking over broken glass and breaking boards to our Breakthrough Innovation workshop. Sure, we also use a rational approach to managing innovation, complete with collaboration software solutions and more academic training. But because it’s because our goal is to help your employees and management break through fear, to the next level of energy and achievement, we have innovated by adding exercises that unlock the power of the human mind.


Moses walking over broken glass

Companies are like people. When they’re young, they are much more willing to take risks… whether it’s snowboarding or signing up for the SEALS, risk is for the young and macho. When people get older, they begin making excuses for resisting change and risk, for getting out of shape, for failing to learn new skills, for giving up.

Likewise, companies make excuses as well, which become part of a culture of reasonableness and maintaining a mission of only being “good enough”.  Innovation is actually about teaching older companies how to become young again. To be fearless again. To strive for its dreams again.

Note: Please do not attempt to perform these acts on your own. Moses is a certified firewalk instructor, having completed an intensive training from the leading firewalk school in the world, and has walked over fire close to 100 times.


1 Comment »

  1. Moses, spot on. I can relate to every word you said. The ancient wisdom is offering us a wonderful tools for dealing with today’s challenges.

    Comment by violeta — February 23, 2009 @ 5:28 am | Reply

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