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VOL. 130 | NO. 221 | Thursday, November 12, 2015


Michael Graber

Overlooking the Obvious: Why Innovation Fails

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This column was based on a presentation by Scott Jenkins, SVP of Innovation and Product Development of Deckers.

Scott began this talk insisting on blend work and play. His journey into “the sin of corporate innovation” happened eight years ago.

At an early age Scott became fascinated with running shoes. He met an inventor in 1978, when he was 18. For eight years, he tried to sell an innovation. He was rejected 94 times by every leading athletic CEO.

He asks, “How do corporations judge good ideas?” How do ideas get killed?”

Finally, they licensed the technology to Reebok and it was a mega-seller. Persistence was key.

His journey took him to the Pentagon, selling a safety innovation, and then he joined Deckers.

He bases his philosophy off of his mother’s wisdom: “Look for the good.”

He foreshadows, “It’s people and culture that make change.”

Then, he jokes, showing several hundred innovation funnels that are meaningless, “Process is necessary but not sufficient to drive innovation.”

But it is not the process that drives innovation. What gets in the way are people who make decisions –and the courage lacking to make such decisions. The over-reliance of process, proof and security stymie the process.

Corporate executives want to create a “bloodless surgery,” and that is now how innovation works.

He quoted Wilber Wright: “No bird ever soared at a calm.” Likewise, no innovation soars in a calm.

Scott switched to a few success stories. The first was Ugg, which Deckers bought for $10 million. As Ugg grew, they were using all of the available sheepskin they could get their hands on. Prices were rising. But there was an orthodoxy that Uggs had to be made of sheepskin.

They created a product called Uggpure, with wool inside but a different material on the outside. Then, they tested it with 100 of their customers. They could not tell a difference in the product. Therefore, costs went down, for the company and the customer, while creating a lighter footprint on planet Earth. They saved the company $70 million a year.

By debunking the orthodoxy, it was a win for the company, the customer and the planet.

Hoka running shoes was Scott’s other example. The insight was that “people choose comfort over discomfort.” The idea was revolutionary, given the barefoot running craze happening at the time. They had to bet that running trends would change away from the minimal style and bet on the consumer three to five years from now.

The CEO said to Scott, “No one at this organization can stop you by saying no.” This golden ticket empowered Scott to build the fastest-growing running shoe in North America.

So, what truly empowers innovation? (Not process.) People. Heart. Character. The courage to lead as innovation officers. Courage is key.

To reward this trait, Deckers gives out an Innovation Courage Award to key innovators in its organization. On the back of the coin it reads:

• Positive Change

• Into the New

• Passion

• Humble

• Open

• Persistence

• Find the Pain

• Look for the Good

These eight mantras guide the innovation process at Deckers. These awards are given to people in every department who live out and practice these values.

The core value is courage: “It takes courage to persist, speak up, follow your passion, be a game changer.” What the award does is show that the company appreciates risk taking and bold action, both of which are core elements for meaningful innovation.

Michael Graber, managing partner of the Southern Growth Studio, can be reached at southerngrowthstudio.com.

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