Innovation from cross-pollination

  • Cross-pollination between Auckland, Los Angeles, and Guangzhou brings the prospect of exciting innovation.
  • Erez Morag believes when culture, expertise, insights, and ranks come together and are cross-pollinated, it is then that truly successful innovation can happen.

“Cross-pollination between these three cities will bring exciting innovation,” said Dr Erez Morag, former Nike Innovation expert speaking at the Tripartite Economic Summit about Los Angeles, Auckland, and Guangzhou.

Morag studied bioinformatics at university because he liked the idea of solving human problems. Soon after presenting his PhD on the structure and function of the foot, he was recruited by Nike executives to join their team.


Erez Morag / Photo: twitter

During Morag’s time at Nike, the company created the ‘Nike Maxims’ – 11 rules that all employees at Nike need to work to:

  1. It is in our nature to innovate
  2. Nike is a company
  3. Nike is a brand
  4. Simplify and go
  5. The consumer decides
  6. Be a sponge
  7. Evolve immediately
  8. Do the right thing
  9. Master the fundamentals
  10. We are on the offense – always
  11. Remember the man

Morag found eleven maxims difficult to remember, and decided to focus on just four:

  • It is our nature to innovate: Nike saw innovation as one of its core organisational competencies.
  • Simplify and go: Nike products have short life-cycles in terms of technology, and in fashion. The company believes that making quick, insightful decisions is the key to its success.
  • Do the right thing: Nike sees itself as a responsible global citizen and embraces the importance of corporate social responsibility.
  • Remember the man: The late Bill Bowerman – an Olympic track and field coach and co-founder of Nike – continues to be held in high regard at Nike for being a motivator, a dreamer, and an innovator. In 1962, Bowerman came to New Zealand to meet Arthur Lydiard, who is credited with inventing the concept of jogging. After meeting Lydiard, Bowerman published the book ‘Jogging’ in 1966 – popularising jogging in the United States. “Invented in New Zealand, commercialised in the United States, and a great example of cross-pollination,” said Morag.

During Morag’s keynote address, he shared his secrets to innovation success, and in particular focused on the importance of cross-pollination. “When culture, expertise, insights, and ranks come together and are cross-pollinated, that is when truly successful innovation can happen,” he said.

Good idea, act now

In general, life presents us with great ideas. They might be on the way to work, or when we’re going to sleep. Most often, it happens when we exercise. But Morag lamented that so many of us put those ideas out of our minds.

“We get a phone call, a text message, a tweet – and forget about the great idea,” he said. When Morag has a great idea, he forgets everything else until he has written it down.

Listen to everyone

Morag learnt this lesson from tennis great Roger Federer. He listens to everyone with the same level of attention – every opinion counts, and counts equally. This is true in science as well. Nike learnt that it is not just the major muscles that count in sport, but all muscles have a contribution to make to speed.

Morag has always given freedom to his employees to innovate. “So often,” he said, “the highest ranked officer speaks, and everyone else rephrases what was said.” Instead, Morag recommends that businesses encourage employees at all levels to share innovative ideas. When he is the highest ranked officer in the room but wants to get really great ideas, Morag speaks last. It is the cross-pollination of ideas across ranks that means that those teams who share the most ideas, produce the best results.

Control the ball – control the game

There is a ‘ball’ for every business, and for every individual. For Nike, the ball is running. Running is the biggest category that any sports and fitness business needs to protect.

Sulfur hexafluoride is an inorganic, colourless, odourless, non-flammable gas that was used extensively in the footwear industry for cushioning. In the 1990s it was recognised as a greenhouse gas. When this happened, Nike decided to control their ‘ball’ – remove sulfur hexafluoride from their product range, as well as change all their solvents to water-based.

Designers and biomechanics needed a cross-pollination of expertise to make sure the shoes would still function well without those harmful molecules. The work took five years to complete, but Nike has now become one of the global leaders in multinational sustainability due to the company’s ability to collaborate.

Chase the insights – not competition

Morag used the Cooper’s hawk as a metaphor. Most hawks hunt in open fields, but the Cooper’s hawk has carved out a market for itself, hunting in various types of mixed deciduous forests and woodlands. “In business, we need to follow our insights and not the competition,” said Morag. “Doing the same as everyone else isn’t necessarily the right thing to do – however hard that might be.”

Going into the 2006 Football World Cup, the two biggest football brands – Nike and Adidas – were facing their own battle. Nike was betting on speed and developed a 200-gram shoe that was considered to be faster than any other shoe available at the time. On the other hand, Adidas was developing shoes that were individually designed for players. Four years later, Adidas switched to lightweight football shoes, which proved to the industry that Nike was on the right track from the start.

Play bigger than your size

In 2008 Nike went through an organisational change and shifted from being operational-centric to consumer-centric. Morag was asked to join the football leadership team and was tasked with finding a way to cross the chasm and bring innovation to the mainstream consumer.

Morag and his team decided that instead of delivering a stand-alone product, they would create and deliver a product alongside a training programme. Bringing together digital marketing, brand, and product teams, he developed a shoe alongside a training programme – combining the physical world with the digital world. This meant that every consumer was able to buy shoes and receive a training programme from the best coaches in the world, free of charge.

Passing insights quickly and accurately from one person to another was the reason why Nike has succeeded where others have failed. During his time at Nike, Morag worked with over 80 of the world’s greatest athletes and is a true believer that the best innovation comes from cross-pollination.

“This Tripartite Economic Alliance can be a great tool to allow cross-pollination to occur, and bring exciting innovation to these three cities – if you take advantage of it,” said Morag.

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