When we think of Nike, we think running. We think swoosh. We think shoes. We think digital sports engineering.
Digital sports engineering?
Yes, this week’s product development and innovation lessons from the news is about Nike’s immersion in innovation in 2013. Fast Company reports that “innovation, Nike-style” is endlessly trying out prototypes, a “messy, exhausting process culled from myriad options and countless failures” born out of a culture that allows “testing without constraints.”
Nike’s reinvention: a firm emphasis on prototyping without constraints
That “without constraints” aspect of the company’s culture means kudos go to Nike CEO Mark Parker who clearly understands his role in fostering innovation.
It is this unconstrained testing that, beginning in 2012, enabled Nike to leap beyond swoosh and shoes and successfully launch an innovative electronic device, FuelBand, that measures movements.
Nike also has completely reinvented its shoe manufacturing process. Rather than setting out to design a new shoe, the company designed a new way to think about the manufacturing of an athletic shoe. The outcome of this process innovation was the Flyknit Racer, a shoe that “is more environmentally friendly and could reduce long-term production costs.”
Nike resisted a status quo existence and instead, reportedly relied on four rules to standardize innovation:
- To disrupt, go all in.
- Anticipate a product’s evolution.
- Direct your partners.
- Feed company culture.
Nike went “all in,” disrupting its traditional approach to manufacturing athletic shoes. What makes this leap even more remarkable is that Nike turned its back on the old saw, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” even while dominating the athletic shoe market with 50% of the running shoe market and 92% of the basketball shoe market across the U.S.
Design thinking places an emphasis on disruption and on prototyping.
Nike earned their innovator crown the hard way: it took 195 tries using the reinvented manufacturing process before the Flyknit Racer was born. It appears that innovating is not for the impatient.
Corporate buy-in is key at a relatively early stage in the prototyping process. How else can one explain 195 prototypes before Flyknit came about? On the other hand, CEO Mark Parker nixed an early prototype of the FuelBand—yet he still let testing continue until the right product was developed. Now, that is a CEO committed to innovation.
Parker went leaps and bounds further. He recognized that increasingly, no one company can possibly have all the skillsets for every aspect of each innovation. Fast Company puts it this way:
Just as Google needed Android to attack mobile and Apple needed Siri to give it a foothold in search, successful businesses need to constantly evolve, either through partnerships, new talent, acquisitions—or all three.
A partnership developed between San Francisco industrial design firm Astro Studios and Nike engineers to work on the electronic movement measuring device that became FuelBand.
Nike directed its new partner through hundreds of prototypes. How? “…Nike’s specific requests to partners included its red-to-green color scheme; the idea of Fuel points, … and a dead-simple interface without excessive metrics.” Fast Company describes it this way: “Nike’s role was between a coach and a traffic cop.”
At this point it is hard not to think about the teams working on Nike’s innovations. They appear to be the personification of persistence, leading one to ask, what drives the continuous prototyping?
Nike probably would argue that it is its emphasis on the Nike corporate culture. Inside the company, the Nike mystique is as critical to its success as its external brand. Fast Company writes that Nike’s “cohesive culture begets tangible benefits, such as talent retention. At Nike, you’re a rookie if you’ve been at the company for less than a decade. Workers quote the company’s maxims like the Ten Commandments.” It’s easy to see, then, that at Nike, “team” is more than an ad hoc concept—it is a shared dedication that pays off in shared team excitement.