We’re all about creating kickass obstacles that put people in every situation imaginable – it’s what keeps Tough Mudder at the forefront of the obstacle event community. What some legionnaires and first-time Mudders might not know is exactly how an obstacle is created and placed on the dozens of courses we roll out each year.
Chris Maltbie is a Tough Mudder Product Manager and 22x legionnaire (including three World’s Toughest Mudders) who oversees the creation and updating of obstacles each year. Check out the interview with the mind behind the obstacles to find out what really goes into making obstacle favorites like King of the Swingers and Everest 2.0.
What does your role as Product Manager entail?
A typical day varies based on the time of year. The way we approach product design is on a seasonal basis. We view the Tough Mudder season as from January up until World’s Toughest Mudder in November. At the end of a season, we’re working on the following year’s product, so we’ll take a look at what has performed well in the past, our participants’ favorite obstacles, how long an obstacle has been on our menu and we’ll feed all of that into a blue print of where we want to take the product in years to come. Then we’ll take that blueprint into ideation, so we’ll start developing ideas around the areas where we think there might be holes in what we’re offering.
Once the product team brainstorms and refines the initial ideas, we’ll do field testing on the obstacle for a couple of weeks. We’ll actually build them, try them ourselves, and see how we enjoy them. We’ll refine them a bit more and put them on the course. In the past, we’ve also done of “Invite only” beta testing events, where we invite legionnaires to come try things out and give us their opinion. From there, we’ll analyze the results of those tests and decide what we want to use for next year. At that point we switch over to an operational roll out mode, where we work closely with the delivery teams to make sure they have an understanding of the new updates we’re putting out for the year. Then, we start all over again. By mid-summer, we’re starting the framework again for the following year, making sure that every year the product we put out is recognizable and fresh.
How long does it take an obstacle to go from an idea in the office to being on the course?
It’s roughly a nine-month process, from identifying the need for an obstacle to actual roll out. From the first time it’s built, to when our customers will see it at every event, is closer to three to six months. Hopefully we’ll get it out in a limited test at the very end of the calendar year, and then launch it in March, or April.
Where do the ideas for an obstacle come from?
The ideas for obstacles come from a couple of sources. As a product team, we try to structure the brainstorms, so we know what the end goal is. The categories of obstacles are teamwork, personal accomplishment (such as strength/speed based obstacles), mental challenge (such as Electroshock Therapy and Arctic Enema) and some are just purely fun, like jumping through mud with your friends. We’ll review what categories are already performing well and which ones are a little short. For example, if we’re hearing, “We want more teamwork obstacles,” from the customers, we’ll take that into the brainstorm section, so we can have dedicated sessions to address those things.
In that way, the Product Team is the source of the ideas but we like to broaden it up as well, to make sure we’re getting as many ideas in as possible. We also include the operations teams, course designers and construction crews in the process because we know they have a lot of hands on experience on the road and valuable ideas to bring. The last source of ideas are voluntary company-wide obstacle contests, where we’ll lay out the categories that are available, and l ask employees to submit ideas. Winners are picked once we’ve reviewed the ideas, and those winners will make it onto the course the following year. Some of our biggest and best obstacles have come from those contests. King of the Swingers, for example, which is a huge favorite with our participants, came from one of those company obstacle contests.
How has the process of creating obstacles become more efficient since you’ve been with Tough Mudder?
In the very early days of the company, obstacle course racing was a brand new field where no one really knew what was expected. Things were done ad hoc so at any given event, someone might say, “Oh, this is a cool idea, let’s just throw it out there” and that same person was probably a construction manager so he would just build it and we put it out there for our participants, which is a very rapid style of innovation. We still encourage this to an extent with our course managers, we’ll say, “View these materials in the field, and if you think you can make something cool for the participants be creative with it and put out something amazing.” Some of our current obstacle designs have come through that process.
One of the core strengths of our team is that everyone on the team is very well tenured at the company, the product team is the longest tenured department in the company as far as years at Tough Mudder. We’ve all run a ton of events, so we just have those roots that help ground us and keep us on track to make sure we’re not shifting too far from what a Tough Mudder is. It makes us well-equipped to work with others who bring a fresh view to the company, who haven’t been around as long but may have new, exciting ideas, to help us translate that into something that fits in the final product for us.
What inspires you to perform your job at a high level?
It starts with the participant. It’s a really incredible opportunity to be able to work everyday towards something that is going to effect hundreds and thousands of people per year. We get so many motivational stories at Tough Mudder about people who are overcoming illness or fighting obesity, or just have had a really hard time in life, and they come out and they’re taking on these challenges we’re creating for them and it’s helping them to overcome that and to make a better life for themselves.
More personally, I have a passion for the product myself and what I’m thinking about and what new obstacles we should develop. When we’re kicking around ideas in a brainstorm, I get excited. I think about the things that I really would want to do. What would I pay to show up to an event to check out that I can’t do anywhere else in my life? That’s what keeps me going, every year is a little different, every day is a little different. I consider myself the lucky one.
How can obstacle innovation improve in the future? What should we expect from Tough Mudder in 2017?
We can say for sure that we’re looking to update 1-2 classic Tough Mudder favorites again and participants should look out for at least one new mental grit obstacle, so think something along the lines of electricity and ice.
We hope to start bringing in even more voices into the ideation process, including opening up contests to our participants to submit ideas and working with design schools, where there are tons of brilliant students who have ideas to submit. Over the past couple of years, we’ve been making greater strides in designing more technically advanced obstacles that are just really satisfying. The mental grit category is a big one that’ll be really fun to continue to develop and see if we can come up with another mainstay that’ll force people to overcome some fears.