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.

Under Armour logo - cropped

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.

The High Price of Risk Aversion

Bright sunrise - croppedIn a recent column, the Wall Street Journal’s chief economics commentator Greg Ip decried the cost of risk aversion.  He presents a convincing case that risk aversion by corporate leaders is reducing investment which leads to reduced productivity and wages.

Risk Aversion charts

He goes on to make the point that resources that should be invested in new technologies and products are instead being used to fund mergers and acquisitions, buy back shares, and pay dividends. Ip asserts that the impact goes beyond the future growth prospects of the companies

These executive are paid to lead. The resulting lower productivity and wages leads to “growing worker dissatisfaction and political upheaval.”

Square in the cross hairs of this strategy is innovation which Ip artfully attributes to efficiently and creatively combining capital and labor. The impact of suppressing innovation is profound.  Ip references New York University economist Paul Romer’s work in which he makes a fascinating observation:

Unlike a machine or a worker, an idea, once conceived, can be reproduced and shared endlessly for free. The determinant of growth then is both how many ideas a society creates, and how quickly and efficiently they are distributed.

Contemplate how many valuable ideas have not yet surfaces due to excessive risk aversion.

Why are business decision-makers taking the more comfortable but ultimately less rewarding path? Beyond basic human nature that cherishes safety, Ip identifies a short-team mindset, the demands of activist investors, excessive government regulation and the challenge of getting sufficient returns on investments in technology.

Who is doing it right? Who is allocating capital well so they do not suppress the future growth if the companies they have been selected to lead?  Today, it is very hard to tell.  A few years from now, it will be apparent.  That will be when the bill for excessive risk aversion comes due.  And in many cases, the executives who ran up the bill will be nowhere to be found.

 

But We Really are Afraid!

Fear - cropped

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.

Failure = Success

Pizza v2, croppedI have had an article on my website for a many years called “Seeking Initiative and Innovation?  Reward Failure!”  The title is intentionally provocative and counter-intuitive.  The core message is that you will not unleash organizational courage unless you openly and genuinely accept negative outcomes along with the positive ones.

Well, I just saw a TV ad by Domino’s Pizza called “Failure is an Option.”  Yahoo!  Exactly.  They focus on their product development process and the need to accept failures in order to get the successes.

Here are a few of the lines from the ad:

>>  “We know that not everything is going to work,” Andy Wetzel, Domino’s Product Innovation

>>  “If we gave up after every mistake, we would not come up with something new,” Tate Dillow, Domino’s Chicken Chef

>>  “In order to get better, in order to move ahead, you are going to make mistakes” and “We cannot be afraid to fail.  It sounds crazy, but it’s who we are,” Scott Hinshaw, Domino’s Executive Vice President Operations

Yea Domino’s.  They get it.  And the ad suggests they are truly incorporating the “failure is an option” philosophy into their culture.  I predict that along with the occasional setbacks Domino’s will enjoy new successes and product innovations.

The ad can be viewed at:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-NPqOOErP5I

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Offer the Carrot – Bury the Stick

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Earlier in this blog, I wrote a little in a post called Subjectivity in Risk Assessment about research showing that we accept greater risks from voluntary hazards than from involuntary hazards. I would like to expand on that topic because I think it is important in understanding how members of an organization respond to efforts to innovate.

Consider the following list of voluntary and involuntary hazards:

Voluntary Hazards

• driving or riding in a car
• recreational risks – such as cycling, motorcycle riding, white water rafting, rock climbing. SCUBA diving
• entertainment risks – amusement park rides, bungee jumping
• alcohol consumption
• smoking
• sun exposure
• flying in a plane

Involuntary Hazards

• air pollution
• hurricanes, tornados and earthquakes
• hydraulic fracturing (fracking)
• communicable diseases
• second-hand tobacco smoke

If you are like most people, you consider many of the involuntary hazards to be a more significant that the voluntary ones. A great deal has been written about the statistically verifiable impact of all the hazards listed. For this discussion, it is not necessary to discuss at lengthy the relative impact of each hazard. The point is that hazards that are imposed on us are commonly perceived as more significant or threatening than those we take by choice.

One example it sun exposure. Many people actively seek to enjoy the warming rays of the sun. Yet it can be readily proven that doing so brings with it significant negative consequences.

How does this apply to encouraging innovation in organizations? The clear message is that you will be more successful if you create incentives as opposed to requirements. It is as simple as seeking action with a figurative “carrot” versus “a stick.” Whether it is change, uncertainty, temporary discomfort or hazards, people do not like them to be imposed upon them.

Message to Team: “Whatever you do, don’t take risks!”

caution-tape, croppedWhen I saw this article recently on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, I thought it was a joke. Unfortunately, it was not April 1st and the article was for real.

Here is the title: “Safety Cops Patrol the Office For High Heels.” Seriously? You can see why I thought it was a joke.

The article tells us that employees at some companies now have to document daily safety risks including “walking across the street, entering restaurant, sitting down and eating meal.” I’office helmetm not kidding.

At some companies, employees are required to document at least two safety infractions each month – like holding open an elevator door for a colleague. (How horrible!)

The article goes on to say that employees at Exxon Mobil Corp. in Irving, Texas recently positioned themselves in the stairway to determine if people were using the handrail. (Really? This was the best use of their time?)

Please understand that I do not mean to make light of workplace safety. It is a very real issue – for people operating wood chippers and stump grinders. These are office workers.

Now think for a minute about the message this sends to people in an organization with these ridiculous safety policies. That’s right – whatever you do, don’t take a risk. Don’t take initiative. Don’t do anything differently than in the past. Don’t step out of “the box”. And above all, don’t even think about innovating.

Someone in these organizations who sees the bigger picture needs to intervene.

An Innovative Environment Helps Attract the Best People

millennial-generationWe all hear about the importance of organizations being innovative. Seems reasonable. An innovative organization should be able to find ways to do things better, develop more new products and services and be generally more effective. These outcomes can all bolster an organization’s competitive advantage.

BMillenials v2ut research shows that an innovative environment contributes to an organization’s competitive advantage in a way that may not have occurred to you. It makes the organization a more desirable place to work and helps it attract talented contributors.

Deloitte has been conducting an annual survey of the millennial generation now for a few years. (Millennials are considered to currently be in their early 30s and younger.) When queried on the importance of working in an innovative environment, they have some noteworthy responses.

A huge portion, nearly eight in ten, say that they are influenced by how innovative an organization is when deciding where they want to work. Half tell us that working for an innovative company is “essential” or “very important” to their overall job satisfaction. And just shy of one quarter say they are willing to earn 15% less in return for having a job at an innovative organization.

This is huge. We all know that attracting the best people makes a critical contribution to your competitive advantage. We now know that part of attracting them is creating the innovative environment that yields dividends in many forms.

Encourage Disobedience

Download-Button v2Here are the first two sentences in a recent article that got my attention:

“Want to be more competitive? Then empower your most technologically disobedient employees.”

The core message is that employees want to do their job and they will seek the tools to do so.  If the corporate Information Technology (IT) department does not provide them with what they need, the will find the applications they need on their own even if it means paying for them.  The proof?  According to research conducted by Frost & Sullivan referenced in the article “80% of people working for organizations with more than 1,000 employees go around the IT department and use (or even buy) software.”  The practice is referred to as “Shadow IT.”

The idea is similar to my admonition to achieve innovation by accepting failures, because you won’t get one without some of the other.  Are there risks?  Of course.  But as the article concludes, “firms concerned about the security issues of shadow IT are missing the point; the bigger risk is not embracing it in the first place.”

The article is titled “Let Staff Go Rogue on Tech.”  It was written by Christopher Mims and is available on the website of the Wall Street Journal.

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Risk-Taking is the Answer

ASU v2, cropped v2In a recent interview, Michael Crow identified risk-taking as vital. Who is Michael Crow? He has been the president of Arizona State University for twelve years. During his tenure enrollment has increased 38%, research spending has tripled and tuition has been kept in check. What’s his secret in a setting in which many universities are struggling? Crows says that educators andASU_logo_0 large academic institutions need to be more entrepreneurial and take more risks. He goes on to state that higher education is too risk-averse and needs to be more innovative.

Isn’t it refreshing to hear someone from a world that can be bound by tradition and excessively focused on the past talk about the need to move forward boldly?

The interview of Crow is titled “Design for a New College.”  It was conducted by Douglas Belkin and is available on the website of the Wall Street Journal.

Lead So Your People Think Like Founders

Leaders, cropped

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.

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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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