Running toward the future: Innovations from Nike

Future in Focus's picture

Nike's new Flyknit line of shoes was discussed in this post from Co.DESIGN yesterday. As a runner, I'm eager to check these shoes out...even though I haven't run in a pair of Nike in years.

Professionally, I found several things of interest in the chatter that emerged yesterday about the Flyknit shoes. In particular, the way Nike approached the project echoed many of the things we hear our colleagues at Strategos recommend.

Take this quote from the CoDESIGN article:

Flyknit was powered by athletes’ input, says Tony Bignell, director of footwear innovation at Nike’s Innovation Kitchen. And what they wanted, head-scratchingly enough, was a sock. “A sock fits great, feels snug, goes unnoticed, and you get no irritation,” Bignell explains.“So the idea was, how do you engineer a sock into a high-performance shoe?

This points to several innovation principles Strategos advocates:

First, insights matter...and you need to extract your customers unmet and unarticulated needs to help "get to the future first" as Stategos once put it. Nike clearly did this and uncovered the fact that runners were craving shoes that mimicked the qualities of socks.

Second, innovation means challenging orthodoxies--those deeply held beliefs about how your company or industry operates. As Strategos has explained in Innovation to the Core and elsewhere, surfacing and challenging orthodoxies is a key step in the innovation process. For Nike, this mean letting go of the idea that running shoes are given their shape and support structure by stitching together lots of small pieces of material. Again to quote from the Co.DESIGN article, Ben Shaffer of Nike said, "We had no interest in just creating a shoe that looked knit...We were challenging a fundamental way of making shoes."

So what was the new model going to be? Nike assembled the technologies necessary to knit a nearly seamless one-piece upper for its shoe. (See here for a cool image of the upper before its attached to the sole).  This means the structure and support for the shoe is actually knitted in. This article says that Nike holds several patents related to knitting one-piece uppers and describes the Flyknit's construction as "a complex combination of modern flat knitting techniques to create a two dimensional component with built in support which can easily be manipulated into a three dimensional upper for attachment to a sole unit." Ok...maybe that's a little more than we need to know, but it points to the power of matching unique consumer insights (runners want sock-like shoes) with proprietary technological capabilities.

Finally, the word is that Nike has been working on this project for four years, which made me think about innovating during recessions. This timeline means that Nike initiated this project as the wheels were coming off the global economy and maintained its commitment to it during the worst of the Great Recession. Strategos has written on this topic...see for example this article at which suggests that recessions offer the opportunity to get ahead of competitors or this article that states, "Historically, corporate winners that emerge from a downturn are those that have changed the game, not stayed the course." It will be interesting to look back five or ten years from now, and see if the Flyknit line is the gamechanger it looks like it could be sitting here today...

~Chris Carbone

originally posted at The Trend and Foresight Blog