Reebok VP Paul Litchfield on Innovation Risks

By Scott Kirsner |  December 8, 2014

What Advanced Concepts Does

“Our group has the luxury of working across the entire brand. We’re supposed to add incremental or unexpected opportunity. I report to the president and CMO of Reebok, Matt O’Toole. My team is 30 people.”

“‘Eureka’ and unexpected opportunity really flies in the face of planning. It’s a real balancing act. You need to be creative, but you need to do it within set expectations. We’re supposed to come up with new opportunities — in product and process — and yet we need to also give enough lead time where it can be integrated in. That doesn’t always work great. When I get to my year-end review, and my boss is agitated with me because I’ve messed up his plans — that’s usually a pretty good year.”

“Our job is actually to fail. It’s almost like learning how to ride a bike: if you’re not falling down, you’re not going to learn.”

How Hard Do You Push?

“We did the Amp shirt, a wired, smart shirt that we were doing with the NFL. It was 10 or 12 years ahead of its time. It was awesome, a huge innovation. But ultimately, the customer wasn’t really ready. They wanted it in theory, but not in practice.”

A newer wearable technology project is the Checklight cap, designed to be worn under a helmet. It glows red if the wearer has absorbed a potentially dangerous hit. The $150 product was developed in partnership with MC10, a Cambridge, Mass. startup. Litchfield says sales have yet to take off. “My analogy is that most people didn’t wear seat belts until they were mandated. Checklight keeps you informed about head impact. But there’s a bit of a gap between people acknowledging head trauma, and actually getting assessed. It has just taken a while for the consumer to buy into it.”

How long do you keep pushing a new product if it isn’t successful right away? “A lot of it is intuitive, based on your best guess — and how tenacious can you be.”

“As product innovators, how far do we lead the consumer? Consumers know what they know today. But where are we going next year? With Checklight, we’re still full on with it. We’re promoting it into Adidas. It will be multi-branded. Ultimately, I think the consumer will come along.”

Risks and Internal Relationships

“Business unit leaders always have advice. We listen and consider all of it, but we don’t act on all of it. You can get wound around the axle trying to address all of their ideas.”

“I report to the Adidas board on many of my team’s projects. You’ve got to find ways to get the support you need. Knowing the audience, the personality you’re speaking with [is important] — what buttons to push to get a reaction, or how to avoid pushing buttons so they feel comfortable. It’s a game of strategy, on how you present the projects, that person, and what they want to hear.”

“I take all the risk personally. I assure the [executive team] that when the parade starts, they’ll be leading the parade. If it’s a no-start, then I take full responsibility. If you can convince your committee or your supervisors that you’re willing to take the risk and absorb the lack of momentum, in my experiences, it works out pretty well.”