What Finishing An Ironman Triathlon Taught Me About Innovation

4 min read

In November of 2003, I walked into the surf in Panama City Beach, Florida and about twelve and a half hours later, I crossed the finish line of an Ironman Triathlon. For the uninitiated, the ironman is a race where the competitors complete a 2.4 mile ocean swim, a 112 mile bike ride and a 26.2 mile run in under seventeen hours. I’d had the dream of doing an ironman for close to twenty years before I did it and to say it was a milestone would be an understatement. Looking back on that time, I’ve come to realize that many of the things I learned along the way, map perfectly to what makes for successful innovation. I’ve included a few of the big lessons below.

Innovation is a process

The actual ironman itself was only a day in my life but the vision and the realization of that goal was a much longer series of smaller, established practices developed over many years. If I hadn’t enjoyed the day in/day out training (almost twenty hours a week for three years), there’s no way I could have maintained the effort required to get myself in shape both physically and mentally over such an extended period of time. When the best organizations innovate, it’s about putting day to day processes in place that build a mindset and a culture of innovation and creativity. Of course the goal is new products and services but getting comfortable with – and even enjoying – the innovative process is what makes innovation an integral part of an organization’s DNA.

Innovation takes a team

While, ultimately, I was the only one allowed to swim, bike and run on race day, I had critical help from a variety of sources without which I’d have never gotten to the starting line. From my triathlon coach to my training partners to the love and support of my family and friends and the hundreds of volunteers on race day, I had a village of people who helped me on my journey. In the same way, even if an organization has in-house innovative geniuses coming up with brilliant ideas, those ideas will stagnate or disappear without the support of leadership and the teams of people it takes to bring great ideas to life. The innovative idea itself is just a starting point. It takes everyone getting on board to bring those ideas to their completion.

Innovation requires a plan

I knew that without a clear and actionable training plan, there would have been no way I could get out of bed every morning for three years and simply “figure out” what I needed to do to prepare myself for the physical and mental challenges that an Ironman would inevitably present. Fortunately, I had a coach who understood the event and over the course of three years gave me a daily workout plan that, ultimately, had me ready for the seemingly impossible challenge of an ironman. There’s a pervasive myth that innovation and creativity are “gifts” simply come to an anointed few. In fact, innovation thrives in a structured environment. Inspiration is only a small part of what makes innovation work. The key is a set of practices and guidelines that allow for those inspired ideas to flourish. Getting out of bed each day hoping innovation will come to you or your organization is as untenable as it sounds. Innovation requires a clear plan and structure in order to be both achievable and sustainable.


Even all these years later, my completion of the ironman reminds me that I’m capable of facing seemingly insurmountable challenges. However, the event itself was only the tip of the metaphorical iceberg when it comes to what I learned in the time leading up to the actual event. In the same way, a successful innovation is only the visible part of a mindset and culture that runs fathoms deeper than good ideas. Everyone in an organization must be willing to patiently look at the big picture, work together and follow the plan to achieve long-term innovative success.


Find out more about Cliff’s innovation & creativity programs for business teams and organizations.

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