The CrossFit Tribe

Tribes, communities and movements have taken over many conversations in the past several years. Much of this conversation is due to the book entitled Tribes by Seth Godin. He recognized the shift of consumers from purchasing based on wants or needs to making purchases based on perceived shared values with that organization. A camaraderie is developed around these organizations, products or services.

For example most people have a favorite cola. Are you a Pepsi person or a Coke person? For some people it's more than a taste preference. These people are members of a tribe, they will only drink one or the other and to suggest otherwise is blasphemy. These tribes often resemble cults. Some people have referred to Apple Computer fans as belonging to the cult of the Mac. Often these tribe members become brand evangelists and are integral parts in starting a movement around a brand. I don't see that happening around soda any time soon but giving passionate people a cause and the potential to do something meaningful can lead to a movement.

Joining a Tribe

As a designer I am fascinated with human behavior. The more I understand why we do the things we do, the better job I can do in designing the experiences our clients need. Over the past few years I have been observing a movement grow around CrossFit. It started with seeing mentions online and hearing third hand about some guy that was doing CrossFit and how crazy he is for doing it. These few mentions really peaked my interest as people not involved are remarking about this fitness program. It must be remarkable. I began to explore online resources and watch videos on YouTube.

A few weeks later my brother in-law and sister in-law joined a local CrossFit gym and began sharing their experiences with me. I saw something interesting in them, that really peaked my interest. Not in a "I want to work out!" sort of way but as a person who is interested in human behavior. I wanted to find out more so I began doing some of the workouts on my own but I didn't notice the behaviors in myself I had noticed in my family.

The CrossFit Movement

In January my wife and I joined a CrossFit gym, nearly two years after first hearing about it. I was a little reluctant because many of the CrossFitter's I had met were overly evangelistic about it's benefits, and I really didn't want to become "that guy". I've noticed some characteristics that are important to the building of a movement. First is that CrossFit has it's own language.

Fran is the name of one of the CrossFit workouts, there are a lot of Named workouts named after girls and many named after fallen service men. A non named workout is called a WOD or Workout Of the Day. This insider vocabulary adds to the sense of belonging for those in the CrossFit world and adds some distance to those on the outside. It's not uncommon to hear a phrase like "What was your Fran time?". This workout consists of 3 rounds of Thrusters and Pullups with 21-15-9 reps for the 3 rounds. I've included a record breaking "Fran" workout below to get a better idea of the craziness.

note - this is a serious athlete. CrossFit workouts are scaled based on your ability. The work is hard but no-one is expected to be able to complete workouts this fast or with that much weight at the beginninging.

This brings me to a second element of starting movement that I've seen demonstrated throughout CrossFit. This is the idea of a shared experience. If you watched the above video you can see how intense these workouts can be. Pushing your body to its limit with other people instantly gives you an intense shared experience the most people don't understand. Everyone no matter how long they've been doing CrossFit remembers the pain of the first week. It's a right of passage, and can even be thought of as an initiation.

These intense shared experiences also function as a third element to a movement and that is the idea of a Barrier to Entry. Have you ever notice how when your favorite band becomes famous they don't seem as good? This is because put the time and effort into finding them and it was something special that very few people could enjoy. It felt like you were part of an exclusive club, until that day they played on the Jay Leno Show. Barriers to entry keep the masses at bay, and lets only the dedicated through. These are the people that are passionate about the organization or product. These are the people that will not give up on starting and growing the movement. Barriers to entry are vital.

ReUsable Principles

CrossFit has grown to huge tribe and for good reason. I'm not sure how much of it was deliberate but the characteristics I mentioned above can be repurposed in your organization.

1. Distinguishing Markers
CrossFit has silly t-shirts that tell people that they are a CrossFitter. They often feature insider references that serve as a secret handshake between athletes. Giving members of your tribe a way to display their affiliation helps build camaraderie and pride. For most organizations t-shirts are an obvious first choice but with a little creativity you can come up with something more unique and appropriate for you.

2. Distinguishing Behaviors
Developing behaviors like your own vocabulary and systems of doing things can give people ways to participate in the movement. What often works best is to include some of the tribe members in developing these behaviors. This fosters ownership and excitement about what you're doing.

3. Shared Experiences
Friendships are based around shared experiences. The more time you spend with someone the more likely you'll be friends and visa versa. Many of best friends from high school I don't talk to anymore because we've all had so many other experiences since then that we've all but forgotten about those relationships. I'm sure it's the same for you. Where can you bring people together and offer a shared experience? Is it possible to include some distinguishing markers and behaviors during these shared experiences?

4. Sense of Exclusivity
The tagline for CrossFit is "Forging Elite Fitness", and it lives up to it. While everyone is welcome at a CrossFit "box" (what they call a gym) only a few stick it out and make it part of their lifestyle. Their barrier to entry isn't imposed but is inherent in the experiences they offer. Often we don't want to exclude anyone, but it's important for building movements that you have a way of weeding out those that are just trying out the new cool thing. You can have a special sub group of people that are helping lead the movement and a larger group that are participants. Are their ways you can give this sub group, their own markers, behaviors, and experiences to strengthen their commitment to being a leader?

Movements Build Community and Community Changes Lives

Here is another CrossFit video. It's a lot different than the previous one. CrossFit has changed peoples lives not only through better health but through the relationships and community that has been built between tribe members. YouTube is full of videos on how CrossFit has totally changed lives and I think that's cool. What about your organization can deliver that?