What I learned from Noma and the Barkley Marathons

There has to be an upside to being in bed with a nasty virus for a week, right? For me it was the opportunity to watch two documentaries – The Barkley Marathons and Ants on a Shrimp: Noma in Tokyo

While vastly different films, both explore what it takes physically and psychologically to be the best; to push through the possibility (and reality) of failure, and to design, create and do what has not been done before.

In product innovation and management, we are often designing and delivering products (and enhancements) in previously unexplored territory; dealing with customer and business problems for which there is no obvious or known solution.

While for Noma and the Barkley Marathons athletes, their ‘product’ may be different to our own, the processes, commitment and attributes needed for success are the same:


In getting to the goal there is often no straight line.

barkley map

You need to iterate, learn, revisit, refine and work consistently and persistently towards your goal.

noma iterate

Context matters

You need to know your customers and your environment. Take the time to know and navigate your market.

noma fish market

If you don’t take the time to explore, listen and learn how can you design and build a proposition your customers will value and relate to?  How will you be relevant?

Embrace the possibility of failure – move outside of your comfort zone

Barkley Quote Failure

As Noma founder Rene Redezpi says, “it’s so easy just to go back to what you know. As soon as you feel comfortable in a situation, get rid of that situation – that’s when new things happen.”

Teaming and diversity are essential ingredients

An effective team works together and supports each other around a common goal and purpose. They are committed to it and while they might ‘fail’ as individuals, as a team they come together and drive for success.

As Katzenbach and Smith note in their book, The Wisdom of Teams, “the hunger for performance is far more important to team success than team-building exercises or incentives”

In the Barkley Marathons, Barkley ‘virgins’ team with Barkley ‘veterans’ for support, guidance and mentorship. Experience counts and teams with diverse experience are inherently more successful.

End of Loop

Each member of the Noma team brings a unique contribution and skill. That is where the magic happens. Without the different perspectives, experiences and ideas the magic would be lost.

noma team

Great teams have fun! Camaraderie, teamwork and fun – all combined lead to breakthrough results.

And finally…

It’s easy to get lost in the BAU of our day to day priorities and roadmap, but there is great value in reflecting and being more deliberate in our approach to designing and building compelling products. Like the athletes of Barkley and the team at Noma, we need to continue to challenge, align around a common purpose and find the simple in the complex.

noma 1