Prof. dr. Stefan Stremersch had an epiphany while running his personal record time in the Berlin Marathon. Running is innovation. Running needs innovation, for example when it comes to new solutions for improving endurance running equipment. In this article he talks about big brands such as Nike and Asics and why are they are (un)successful. But innovation also needs running: running teaches you characteristics that are needed to make innovation into a success. Read prof. dr. Stefan Stremersch his view on this below.

Yesterday, I ran a new personal record (3.12) on the marathon distance. While “strolling” at a pace of ± 13km/hr through the streets of Berlin on my way to the “Ziel”, I had what one could call an epiphany. “Ziel” is how Germans call the finish line by the way. This is interesting linguistically as it also has meanings such as destination and even purpose. Talk about giving meaning to a marathon finish line! Anyway, back to my “epiphany”… (Endurance) Running equals Innovation! Why?

Running needs innovation (if you want to clock)

Until recently, all my running was done on old-fashioned #ASICS. I regularly cover the ASICS case in my classes at #IESE Business school. I feel it is a wonderful history of a brand losing touch with innovating for its core customers, as well as choosing to lose key customer intimacy. ASICS made the pretty stupid decision to halt the sponsoring of the New York marathon. I am currently studying this decision with some academic collaborators. This major marathon is now gear sponsored by New Balance, which in the meantime has toppled ASICS in long distance running shoes!

In one of my (ASICS) classes, one of the program participants (a sub 3 runner), recommended me to throw out my ASICS shoes. I switched to #Nike and have so far trained on the Pegasus Turbo 2 and now raced for the first time on the famous Vaporfly series, the Next% to be more precise. Nike fueled massive innovation efforts in this marvel in long distance running. And today, I felt it, I felt like flying. I also “belonged” as my starting block (my “coral”) was about one third filled with co-runners on… #Vaporfly’s.

Moreover, Vaporfly’s are one of the classic examples of innovation value pricing and the realization that steep prices come with strong and backed up innovation claims (which we typically call value demonstration). With the previous version of the Vaporfly, Nike promised 4% more efficiency (which in marathon terms is dazzling). Moreover, Nike proved it! Later independent studies on the New York marathon also confirmed it. Its new Next% launched at the London marathon with elite runner, record holder and Olympic champion, Kipchoge. Not only witty as a brand with the %, but also true in its promise to consumers, Nike claimed the Next% is better than the 4% but it does not want to make claims as to how much % more.

Today I realized that I have not been innovative enough myself – a moment of shame followed of course for an “innovation guy”… I pondered: Why have I been so slow? I realized one of the most powerful sources of sluggish adoption was the culprit, namely “compatibility”. For several years, I had a podologist telling me I needed to stick with my ASICS, that it was the safer choice for me for injury prevention. However, we all know that trained experts are often the slowest in embracing innovation. But now I am liberated and I am committed to share my story. As are all other athletes on Nike Vaporlfy’s it appears; the power of diffusion has propelled Nike to the forefront of long distance running, thanks to innovation. It has propelled me to a new PR, equally in part by innovation. The other part of course is training, which needs innovation too. The basic law in training is your body needs to experience variation (i.e., innovation) in training to get better.

Innovation needs running (to well, … run well)

The more I am involved in endurance sports, the more I believe it also stimulates innovation as it can be a source of innovation understanding.

These days I compete in marathon (Berlin was nr. 10), triathlon (I did my first full distance Iron Man in Zurich this year and a handful of IM 70.3 so far) and duathlon (I was a sub 9 hour finisher in the World Championship long distance duathlon in Zofingen and will contend next in the “Hell of Kasterlee” on December 22, the toughest winter duathlon in the world). But why does innovation need endurance sports, in particular running? Well, for a couple of reasons.

First, it builds persistence. Textbook examples of successful innovation typically brag about the persistence of the innovator. Persistence in the presence of discouraging signals is the prime asset an innovator needs to bring to the table. Persistence is not an innate quality of a person, but it is a quality that can be trained, for instance through long distance running. Endurance requires not giving up while it would be easier to do so. It is about coming to a start line “slightly injured” (I have been struggling with a chronic hamstring problem for the last 6 months or so; small problem compared to what others face, such as a fellow runner on chemo I talked to over dinner the night before who finished the race nonetheless), but still finding the courage to go on. It is about facing the 30km mark and then still running 12 km’s while everything in your body tells you to “SLOW DOWN!!” and refusing to do so.

Second, it is about finding a rhythm. One of the most inspiring articles on innovation ever published in academia talked about time pacing when studying Intel’s innovation strategy (you know the doubling of processor speeds every 18 months). It is about finding the discipline to innovate on a regular rhythm, not leaving it to accident or the awkward inspirational moment, but it is about planning for it, training for it. In my last four years as an endurance athlete, I discovered that the key to success in endurance athletics is the same regularity of training. A friend once told me: “Stefan, I could also do what you do, if I just trained for it as much as you do”. My friend missed the point, the challenge is not in the race, it is in the training (he is still a friend…). The same is true about innovation. It is not about the next big innovation, it is about nailing the process of innovation (“the journey”) and not even that. It is about creating a “habit to innovate” (check out the fabulous book of New York Times journalist Charles Duhigg on this). Just like your body creates a habit – or should I say addiction – to train. It drives out other habits and addictions (such as overeating and excessive alcohol consumption) and replaces it with an addiction to train (more taxing on the bones and tendoins, less on the heart, stomach, and liver). The same way one can wonder which (bad?) habits of firms innovation drives out? Maybe politics, leader overconfidence, anxiety of people to stand out, excessive planning?

Third, it is about competing against oneself. If one is really serious about innovation one can or should get inspired by others (see my article on “How Winners Make Choices” at IESE Insight), but in the end one needs to “better your best” (the last slogan of ASICS that worked). To embark on a continuous learning journey. It is not about beating a competitor with a small margin, it is about embarking on your own path, as a market maker, not as a market taker. The same is true for endurance (non-elite) athletes. At the start of a long distance race, the most certain thing for 99,9% of the athletes is you won’t win. This is also not why you came. What you came for is to overcome your own limitations, fears, anxiety. What you came here for is to better your best. Sometimes, this is a PR. At other times, it is just finishing. And sometimes, it is just about being smart and letting the brain take over from the drive you feel deep inside. I ran London 2018 (also an Abbott major) at 34 degrees and open skies in April! The recommendation of the organizers: Run smart, run slow, the body is not used to this heat in April! Forget your time. Finish and survive it. I did and finished at one of my slowest paces (3.43 or so), seeing countless runners faint in their attempt on my way to the “Ziel”. On that same day, a runner died in the Antwerp marathon where the same heat conditions ruled. The same is true for innovation. Get inspired by others, but stay your own course. In the end, the most successful innovators are market makers that set their own course.

Monday morning

Tomorrow is Monday morning. A day that starts with a reality check with a client meeting at 8am. Topic: innovating their business model from the ground up. I can’t wait until my alarm sounds… Even though the trip to Berlin was exhausting and short (I am writing this piece Sunday night on a red eye from Berlin back to Brussels), I am curious. Will the inspiration of an endurance race last another day and invigorate the group tomorrow? I hope to hold on to my thoughts I had in the streets of Berlin, Germany’s beautiful capital, as long as possible. But of course the next path is set. I resume training Thursday in Spain when working on my new Innovation book. “Ziel”: Hell of Kasterlee (the toughest winter duathlon in the world). Curious: will innovation hit you even harder when endurance is meeting the climate challenge when “Winter is coming…”? I feel a Christmas post coming up…

And of course after a PR always come the realization: (1) my PR is simply not that great compared to many other outstanding athletes (what is a victory for me would be a disappointment for someone else); (2) my PR will be met with later disappointment in other races. But then again… Persist in trying to better my best should be my sole aim. That is the only way for an innovation evangelist (without shame)…

About the author

Stefan Stremersch is a world renowned professor specialized in innovation diffusion, marketing of science, & commercialization of new technologies. His academic research has appeared in leading scholarly journals such as Journal of Marketing, Journal of Marketing Research, Marketing Science and Management Science. He has received many awards for his teaching and research, both in the US and Europe.



Featured image via Pixabay.