Lessons from an Innovation Superstar

Under Armour 2 - croppedUnder Armour founder and CEO Kevin Plank is nothing if not an entrepreneur. He started the company in 1995 in his grandmother’s basement.  His inspiration was to find an alternative to the cotton shirts he wore under his pads when he played football at the University of Maryland.  Those shirts got soaking wet, heavy and slowed down the players.

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His creation now has nearly $4 billion in annual sales, 13,500 employees and is an innovation superstar. Not satisfied, Plank is setting out to create an entirely new component at Under Armour.  He is leading a charge into fitness technology.  Along the way, he has invested nearly $1 billion buying three activity-tracking and diet-tracking mobile app companies.  He sees this effort aligning well with the Under Armour’s mantra to “make all athletes better.”

Whether he will succeed in this effort is unknown. What is fascinating is the culture he has created in the last twenty years that so thoroughly embraces innovation to the point that it created an entirely new market segment – high performance athletic wear.

Not surprisingly, Plank is into continually sending the message that innovation is prized and desired. (As obvious as this seems, my experience with client organizations shows that this is astonishingly rare.)  One of the ways he continually sends the message is by having admonitions prominently displayed around the Under Armour headquarters in Baltimore.  They include:

Perfection is the enemy of innovation. 

Respect everyone. Fear no one.

And my favorite:

Think like an entrepreneur. Create like an innovator.  Perform like a teammate.

A simple but powerful concept he promotes at Under Armour is called “guardrails.” He promotes the idea of providing his people with figurative guardrails that establish the boundaries within which they operate.  Presumably some guardrails apply to all and some are specific to individuals.  Regardless, it is a brilliant concept.  Guardrails allow creative and motivated team members the latitude to do exciting things with boundary clarity.  Brilliant.  The results of the organization speak for themselves.

But We Really are Afraid!

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Contemplate this statement for a moment:

“We cannot respond [to threats or risks or change] with pure emotion, but leaders can’t omit emotions entirely.  If only because people need validation of their legitimate fear and anger before they will listen to arguments for measured action.”

While this was written in reference to political leaders responding to threats from terrorism, it offers interesting insights about leading organizations through change and innovation. These words, slightly paraphrased, were written by Washington Post editorial writer Charles Lane.  The bracketed phrase is my addition.

Change is rarely welcomed or well-received. I have long contended that people ascend to leadership positions within organizations in part because they have superior risk-taking talents.  Part of utilizing those talents is helping those they lead to move past their limiting fears – to embrace the changes the leaders realize are unavoidable.

It is easy to say that taking risks well requires removing the emotion from the process and being more empirical. And you would be right.  But Lane provides us with a valuable insight.  You will be well-served to acknowledge and honor the fears and concerns of your team before moving forward with analyzing and deciding.

Lead So Your People Think Like Founders

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Peter Thiel was a co-founder of PayPal and the first outside investor in Facebook. When he offers insights on how big companies can be more like startups, it’s worth listening.

His observaPaypal-Logotion is that companies can be innovative and agile when they are led by founders or a person who is as close to a founder as possible. He goes on to observe that “founders are often able to make more choices and take more risk and have more inspiration than more politically minded CEOs.”

So, what does this mean to you as a leader in your organization? Let’s focus on his characterization as close to a founder as possible. Well, firFacebook-logo-PSDst off what are the traits of a founder? There is no on uniform template, but in general founders tend to be visionaries. They need to comfortable taking risks and have a reasonable amount of courage to do so.

So, will your people be more innovative and take more initiative if they exhibit these traits? Yes, very likely. Should you work to make them more comfortable taking risks like founders do, though likely not on the same scale? Yes.

I talk at length in my books, presentations, coaching, posts, etc. about the need to create an organizational culture that encourages and rewards intelligent well-executed risks. As you do this in your organization, it may help you to think in terms of creating a setting where you people are given the permission to think a bit like founders.


The interview referenced in this post is accessible at: http://online.wsj.com/articles/peter-thiel-on-why-big-companies-dont-think-like-startups-1414962990

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