Parkour was developed in France and has been the subject of numerous stories (see the April 16, 2007 issue New Yorker for one of the latest), at least 2 documentaries, and has been used as “action” in both broadcast advertising (Nike) and in film (the last 007 film, Casino Royale). Onetime pals David Belle and Sebastien Foucan are the originators of this incredible practice of physical confrontation with the built urban environment. To be understood at all, one has to see the practitioners of Parkour (traceurs) in action. Go to YouTube or Google and search for any of the terms above and you’ll hit paydirt soon enough. Chances are pretty good you’ve already seen examples of parkour and just not known what to call it. Parkour is neither sport nor hobby: it is a discipline.
Now, I want to do a strange flip. Not the physical kind, but a piece of conceptual gymnastics. I want to suggest that Parkour is both a good metaphor for the kind of corporate strategy that should emerge from design thinking and the ethos of innovation AND that a Parkour strategy for changing how people in organizations think is vital to creating the conditions for success that are implicit in the model for organizational optimality (if that will be the right thing to call it) that emerges from applying design thinking to organizations as a new esprit de corps.
Let’s start with my claim that Parkour is a fitting metaphor. Well, what is the activity of parkour? It involves the continuous and unbroken negotiation with and confrontation of obstacles, charting a path of constant, sometimes even accelerated, motion. The traceur begins by setting out at a run, leaping onto a ledge or railing, following that to its end and launching onto a ledge above, levering up onto to the ledge and propelling from ledge to wall, schimmying up the wall, etc. There is no straight line, there is no set course, there is no formal start or end point. That is, unlike many of the arbitrary constructions of analytic frameworks applied to organizational behavior and strategy, Parkour starts out by accepting the real conditions of the environment, their ambiguity and challenges, and sets out to meet and confront them rather than to eliminate or remove them. The point, then, of a Parkour Strategy would be to develop a discipline of organizational courage.
A Parkour Strategy would be a discipline of mind rather than a physical discipline. It would start by laying out a set of exercises that would serve both to disrupt old habits and to gradually create new ones. These exercises might include things like practicing active listening by not speaking in a meeting and instead concentrating on identifying the best idea or insight you heard someone else express. After the meeting you could write a paragraph which explained the value of the idea. You might consider whether there would be a value in changing the venue of regular meetings for a week. Choose an environment that you think would be ideal for a meeting that went well. What kind of place is that? The point of such “baby steps” is that, as in Parkour itself, we must recognize the need for gradualism and acclimation that is essential to making changes that bend but don’t break the mind’s established patterns of thought.
How can we change the way we think? What would a style of thought look like that supported what I have called organizational courage? I do not have the answers to these questions, but I think that exploring such ideas is crucial to developing organizational fitness for innovation. I look forward to reading your thoughts.