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.

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