Radical Collaboration in Obstacle Course Design for Tough Mudder

Innovation strategy for the next generation of team-building obstacle courses

Tough Mudder is “Probably the Toughest Event on the Planet,” a 10-12 mile military-style obstacle course designed to test all-around strength, stamina, mental and physical grit, and teamwork. Inspired by British Special Forces training, each of the company’s now 50+ global events is a grueling untimed challenge with 20+ obstacles ranging from military classics—e.g. crawling through mud underneath barbed wire—to unique and terrifying experiences that test all the senses, such as the colorfully yet descriptively named Electric Eel, in which participants slither face-down through frigid water to avoid electric shocks from above. (Per Tough Mudder, “Should you try to crawl on your knees, you’ll be smacked with live wires and your body will compulsively contort!”) In 2012, the organization was set to go global with 35 events and half a million participants, and partnered with IDEO to construct a robust and scalable approach to obstacle innovation based on principles of rapid prototyping and human-centered design. Tough Mudder has since created a robust market-leading obstacle innovation process under the direction of the company’s Chief Creative Officer, including an offsite Obstacle Innovation Lab for rapidly prototyping and refining new obstacle concepts prior to final rollout.

The Tough Mudder/IDEO partnership began in an unusual way—with the blood, sweat, and tears of designers. While IDEO designers always seek to build empathy, this was no normal design consultation: After reading IDEO CEO Tim Brown’s book Change by Design, Tough Mudder’s CEO and cofounder Will Dean insisted that IDEO designers complete a Tough Mudder challenge before starting project work. Cofounder and president Guy Livingstone participated with the IDEO team, pointing out the event’s strengths and weaknesses so designers could better understand their performance and grasp all the nuances involved. IDEO designers then embarked on a 6-week project with the Tough Mudder team to create new obstacle concepts, in the process helping the Tough Mudder team adopt IDEO’s human-centered design approach and internalize best-in-class principles of innovation.

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Project date: 2013