Like many others in the Crossfit community and few outside of it, I spent much of last weekend watching the Crossfit Games, a competition that purports to identify the fittest man and woman in the world. For those who have never heard of it, Crossfit is an exercise regimen with the motto “Forging Elite Fitness”, loosely described as:
“Constantly varied, functional movement performed at high intensity”
The focus of the program is not to simply go through the motions of exercising but instead to tangibly and rapidly improve health and athletic performance. Since beginning my own journey with Crossfit I have been pondering the similarities between the Crossfit model and a concept that John Hagel, John Seely Brown and Lang Davison describe as the Collaboration Curve:
There’s a classic story in economics primers illustrating the power of network effects. It tells how the first fax machine gave little value to its owner–after all, there was no one else with whom to send and receive faxes. As time went by, however, the value of that first machine increased as other people bought fax machines, and soon its owner could send faxes to the far corners of the earth, and receive them in return.
The point of the story is how the value of a node in a network rises exponentially as more nodes are added to it. These are called network effects.
Now let’s add a twist to the story. What would happen if, at the same time more fax machines joined the network, each machine rapidly improved its performance? The result would be an amplifying effect on the first level of exponential performance. One exponential effect occurs from growth in the number of nodes. A second amplifying effect arises from the improving performance of the machines themselves.
Fax machines, of course, don’t perform better as you add more of them to a network. But people and institutions do. And that’s where the concept of network effects gets more interesting–when we apply it to how people might perform better.
These authors use video games (World of Warcraft), software development (SAP’s Software Developer Network) and extreme sports (big wave surfing) as their case examples, but I think this concept describes the Crossfit community equally well. Consider this synopsis:
Here’s what interesting: The more players participate and interact with WoW’s knowledge economy, the more valuable its resources become, and the faster players increase their rate of performance improvement. Said more generally, the more participants–and interactions between those participants–you add to a carefully designed and nurtured environment, the more the rate of performance improvement goes up.
Over the past several years, as Crossfit has grown, the rate of performance improvement has dramatically increased. The community has broadened to incorporate sport specific training methods, endurance training, and strongman training. As more people join the community and more new ideas circulate, competition and collaboration are simultaneously hastened.
At the same time, a growing commercial market has developed around the crossfit community. Small companies have sprouted up selling equipment specifically designed for crossfit, building web services that help athletes record and track their workouts, and selling nutritional products specifically designed for crossfit training.
This post, however, is not really intended to be about Crossfit; the above description merely serves as an example of the Collaboration Curve in action. The feature of the crossfit community most instructive to other goal directed activity is the the obsessive devotion of the participants. John Hagel has recently written convincingly about the role of passion in the new economy, and I think it is important to emphasize the connection between passion and the collaboration curve.
At the risk of over-generalizing, almost all people enthusiastically enjoy the experience of rapid performance improvement. People become obsessed with Crossfit because they improve every day, they record and track improvements, and other people notice those improvements both in their performance and their appearance. People get obsessed with games like WoW for exactly the same reasons. Games like WoW provide participants with an experience of progress that they get from few other endeavors in their lives, and that experience of progress becomes addictive. The collaboration curve is fundamentally a function of passion. People improve rapidly in these environments because performance improvement engenders passion which in turn engenders the pursuit of more performance improvement.
If the corporate world could empower people to one tenth the degree of I see in the crossfit community, if it could engender one tenth of the passion, the results would be remarkable.