“Being Innovative at Work Isn’t Just for the Special Ones; It’s in All of Us”

adidas' SVP for Innovation Tom Waller reveals what innovation means to him and how to find your inner innovator.

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Innovation is an interesting word that creates all kinds of debates whether it’s in your job title or not. One of the things that often gets asked is, “Can we define innovation?” That suggests it’s a factory type process where the right amount of input, put through the right machine at the right time will guarantee an output. But that’s not always true! There are many thousands of ways to be innovate at work and we should probably assume the most innovative of them all is always still ahead of us.

For me, innovation is the acknowledgement that humans struggle to stay still. If we’re offered the opportunity to stretch outside our perceived boundaries, we will. We will always follow that innate human desire to explore, learn and grow.

It’s very interesting from a human point of view in that we are born into the world too early and we need each other to thrive. Our brains fully develop in the outside world and as a result, we’re massively shaped by our environment and the people around us. Our unique and individual experiences develop our equally unique perspectives and characteristics which are amplified when part of groups.

Humans are not individually the fastest, the strongest or the smartest. But together, we can be the fastest, the strongest, the smartest. The greater the diversity across backgrounds, generations and skills, combined with the availability of novel technologies and modern cultural advancements, the greater the innovation potential we create. Innovation is baked into all of us.

Why we need to innovate

In a corporate world, businesses have to be efficient and competitive to be successful in the mid to short term, and they need to be innovative to grow for the long term. It is well documented that efficiency is the enemy of original thought, so we have a paradox to manage. We know that developing new skills and capabilities is inefficient and we will encounter many bumps along the way. Just think about starting a new sport or hobby; it’s slow at the beginning! That’s why a lot of companies have had to figure out how to incorporate innovation in the workplace in right way, without destabilizing the core business.

Being intentional about the act of innovation – having it as a value – encourages everyone at adidas to do the hard work in exploring if there is a better way. And if there is, we need to develop the skills to know if that better way can fit to our business now, or if we have to find ways to fit our business to it. If we do not do that, our consumers will lose interest in us and our market position will falter.

We are surrounded by a distracting and evolving world. Whether it’s technical, cultural, economic, or our understanding of the human condition, we’re constantly presented with opportunities to do something differently. If we can successfully unite efficiency, productivity and a creative view into our place in the future of sport, then our core will remain protected, and we will be in the best position to grow and transform from a place of strength. Timing and planning are everything. Look backwards, look sideways, look forwards, get ready.

Person in lab coat walking through an isle with fabric on each side
Innovating in an evolving world.

It's really about being ready

More often than not, dedicated innovation teams are doing the right thing at the wrong time. The art to creating a successful innovation process is to do the right thing at the right time at the right speed. It’s never linear and readiness is key.

So, what do we mean by readiness? For example, we could be technically ready with something like artificial intelligence or synthetic biology becoming increasingly feasible, but the consumer desire might not be ready because of a fear of the unknown, or the behavioral switch being just too much work. Or the technology could be ready, the market and the consumer could be ready, but a viable business model might not yet be ready based on how we’re currently set up. We’re only as ready as where we are least ready.

Assessing readiness and working towards being completely ready is incredibly important. If we want to develop a new technology or category and bring it to market in a new way, that probably requires a new or updated business model. The trap we need to avoid is becoming confused between what should exist in the world and our ability to build, acquire or operate it. We need to invest in our talent and systems to make it happen and it will take time.

It’s a team game where every position counts

Because of the complexity of so many moving parts in achieving readiness – and the human truth of being better together – innovation has to be a team game. It’s very important that all perspectives are present, but it’s equally important to recognize that this will result in a certain level of creative abrasion.

It’s easy to fall into the belief that, “it’s only for the dreamers or the creatives.” But that’s just not true. To the team game analogy, it is important to look around and check if all positions have arrived on the pitch ready to play the game together. It’s not just about you or any individual, it’s about positional excellence and patterns of play.

Once you have the players, it’s then about practicing and testing those patterns of play. We may have to acknowledge that we’re playing on a slightly unfinished pitch. We might be playing against a competitor that really wants to take the ball. Even among the team, there will be that creative abrasion as we all operate at different speeds, with different levels of tolerance for ambiguity. Just remember that it doesn’t matter who scores the goal, it only matters that a goal gets scored.

adidas employees working with fabric at a table
Innovation is the red thread that connects our people at adidas.

How you can be more innovative at work

Innovation is not for the special ones, but it is a special mindset where a positive relationship with ambiguity is paramount. One of my favorite phrases is ‘ambiguity creates’ and it is exciting to meet those individuals who take action when there’s a lack of clarity, certainty or a gap in the knowledge. When faced with ambiguity do you freeze, or do you create your way out of it?

The fact that innovation is an adidas value means that developing the right mindset is a task we all need to take on. Think about the last time you were most open and willing to listen and to learn through curiosity.

It’s not always about a moonshot

A lot has been written about the different types of workplace innovation – incremental, adjacent, transformational, disruptive – there are many ways to frame the same basic desire to question “Is there a better way?”. For me, it’s less important to categorize innovation by type. It’s more important that we have a broad portfolio that ensures we simultaneously protect, grow and intentionally transform our business on behalf of the consumer over a time period that supports our ability to sustain any change.

Sometimes our egos convince us that anything other than a disruptive innovation is not as valuable. It’s fine to drive towards the big shift, but those moments aren’t likely to happen every day. Nor should they, because the world might not be ready and our business model will certainly not be. It’s an interesting reality that very few companies intentionally disrupt themselves. Can you think of any that haven’t had to shift due to some existential crisis?

The important truth is that most big shifts happen because of the thousand small things that we did up to that moment. We only realize the world has fundamentally changed in hindsight.

Three men looking at an adidas shoe on a screen while innovating
Working collaboratively on the little things to drive towards big change.

Start by looking out

If you’re asking yourself ‘how can I be more innovative at work?’, first back up from every problem to allow a new perspective to enter your world. Look at your role, your contribution and say, “the problem that I solve, the value that I create is….”, then you create an opportunity to ask, “Is there a better way?”

You might need to look at people that are doing your job in another company, another industry, another space to get some inspiration or validation. By querying the different way, you can identify if there is access to valuable impact that you are not yet achieving.

Are you in a network? Do you have a mentor? What are you doing to understand that you are probably not the only person doing what you do in the world? Who do you take work from and who do you give work to? What are their jobs to be done and do they have friction associated with your partnership? Do you create friction with what you do to serve, or do you reduce it?

Look for different, but don’t assume that’s better

The best way to start seems to come from identifying a ‘different’ way of being or performing before labelling anything as better, and then look at the outcome to decide if it’s better. Different may feel better, but it’s not always true. The grass is very often not greener. It’s just different grass. I encourage people to first accept that there’s a different way and then to be curious about asking if that different way is better, and why.

As a leader of innovation, I spend most of my days looking at how the rest of the world is innovating. I might say “Oh, they have a different angle. Do I have access to that angle? Does that angle have a better impact than the impact I’m able to have?” and then I can question “Am I going to choose to develop myself towards that, as a leader and a driver of innovation?”

The ‘watch out’ is that comparison can be the thief of joy, so this isn’t about searching for what you cannot do and diminishing your own individual genius. Nor is it about looking at competitors and assuming that if they are achieving better results, we should somehow emulate them. That is not innovation, but understanding ‘why’ is extremely valuable.

A group of adidas employees brainstorming around a table.
adidas embodies a culture of innovation.

In the right culture, we embrace risk together

At its heart, innovating is an act of taking a risk. Regardless of how diligent we are, there is still no guarantee that everything will work. Embracing the difference between perceived risk and actual risk in an incubator environment works best. Practice with your relationship to perceived risk and respect actual risk. They are different.

We should be our own cheerleaders on the sideline and not the commentator in the stands. The danger is that at some point, the players stop taking risks and then innovation as a culture starts to erode. Having a culture that is supported by all – from top to bottom, bottom to top – means that we can endure risk and the results of that act of risk-taking together.

Know how to fail and how to let go

Developing a healthy relationship with failure is vital. If we’re truly being innovative at work then failure at some point is inevitable, but when we fail is what to focus on. There’s an often-used phrase of ‘fail fast’ which means we should test our innovation as soon as possible. Early feedback on a beta form of your work can reduce massive pain later on. It is hard to be judged when we know things are not perfect but ‘zombie projects’ or last minute failures are much worse. When we operate this way, all failures are as valuable as our success, because they teach us.

Man using hand gestures during a conversation at a table
Tom passionately expressing what innovation means to him at adidas.

Are you ready for what’s next?

Being innovative means being fully invested into understanding what the world needs most and understanding what we are most qualified to do in response. We are in an extremely volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous world, so those needs are constantly shifting. The world will surely benefit from our collective ability to notice and create the value that sport can add in meeting so many of those needs.

People need to belong, to feel a little safer, to find a place to escape, and to find their path to self-improvement. The sports we serve and the many we don’t are ready for a reframe, and our history of performance for everyone is now more useful than ever.

For us at adidas, innovation isn’t just a buzzword. It has been a core part of adidas’ DNA since the very beginning of our journey in sport. From the first athletic spike to the latest podium winning shoes. We’ve shown that only by innovating together will we continue to win.

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