Stoked: Why Action Sports is the Ultimate Culture of Innovation

by Eric Seibold

In boardrooms across the globe senior executives are talking about building cultures of innovation within their organizations. At the same time managers are lamenting about the difficulties of supervising and incenting Millennials in the workplace. Yet this rising generation, fueled by a culture forever altered by Action Sports, holds the answers to breaking down the barriers to corporate innovation.

Millennials are often accused of disengagement in the workplace, not respecting hierarchy, and not striving to meet career goals. There is some truth to this, but only because existing corporate structures are being levied upon a generation that was raised looking at the world differently, beginning with their competitive sports. Analyzing the fundamental traits of action sports, versus their stick-and-ball predecessors, uncovers insights into a culture of innovators that holds the key for the future of business.

The End of Position Play

Traditional sports teams assign and even recruit players for specific positions. These roles are defined by duties which, when executed properly and in concert with other players, produce measurable results. Action sports “teams” are much more loosely constructed, usually consisting of a “crew” of individuals who come together to inspire, drive and feed off each other. The crew can vary from day to day or week to week, resulting in a fresh influx of inspiration and varied experiences.

The crew does not exist solely to propel the team to win. Rather, the collaborative group influences and pushes each other to achieve individually, resulting in a collective advancement in the skills and abilities of all. This culture ultimately drives progression and innovation. In business, this translates to more cross-functional project teams and collaboration, equating to deeper consumer connections and value in the end results.

Progression vs. Winning

Fielding two teams in head-to-head competition yields absolute victories and defeats. Yet the play in stick-and-ball sports has remained largely the same for decades. Watching a Superbowl from the 1990’s may show a great game, but the play itself is largely comparable to what would be expected today. Conversely, watching action sports competitions from only a few years ago immediately illustrates how much the sports themselves have progressed and evolved.

Millennials have never known a world without X Games. They have always watched competing athletes cheer for one another, pushing the boundaries of what is possible by attempted maneuvers never before completed. Winning itself doesn’t carry the same aspiration in this culture; it is rather measured by progress. Failures are embraced as gains. The end goal for everyone is progression – both incremental and breakthrough. By focusing business efforts on progression, rather than winning, the end result is measurable and meaningful innovation.

Style vs. Technicality

Athletes in Action Sports are most often categorized by two elements – style and technicality. Most often the superstars of their respective sports have a unique blend of both elements which sets them apart from other participants. Those with an overabundance of one or the other, rarely achieve podium status.

Naturally, Millennials view these elements as synergistic. Organizations however, typically silo design, marketing and R&D groups. Siloing these groups keeps them working only on their respective pieces of a project, in the hopes that all elements will come together cohesively and appeal to the market. However, as the example of a diverse “crew” showed earlier, by integrating these groups they are able to influence and drive each other, sharing learnings throughout the innovation process. This drives progression and again, everyone wins.

Implications For The Future

The greatest example of all the traits mentioned in this article can be better understood by viewing a YouTube video of well known Action Sport’s athlete, Tony Hawk. After battling his way to the top as a technical skateboarder, Hawk attempted to land a trick called the “900” in 1999’s X Games competition. The crowd and fellow competitors rallied behind Hawk as attempt after attempt failed. With each failure the energy and excitement of the crowd grew. The collective culture of this group knew that each failure was actually a natural step in the iterative process towards achievement.

For businesses trying to build innovation cultures we can learn greatly from this rising generation and their unique influences. Diversifying our workforce, focusing on progression rather than wins, and merging our style & technical teams early in the development process will break down barriers and create cultures of innovation. If you still need more convincing, just watch Tony Hawk’s achievement on YouTube above and imagine what your business is capable of.


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Eric SeiboldEric Seibold is an Insights & Innovation Leader at ITW Permatex. For five years prior, Eric was second-in-command at a New York based innovation firm where he worked with category leaders like Coca-Cola, HP, and Whirlpool to successfully extend brands and launch new products. This combined experience gives Eric a unique perspective, having consulted with Fortune 500 clients in every stage of the innovation process – from insights & ideation through commercialization.

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