Who Wields the ‘Power of No’ at Your Company?

By Scott Kirsner |  January 12, 2015

The odds are good that Stuart Jenkins has put innovation on your feet. He licensed technology to Reebok that was used in its hit DMX line of sneakers, brought Skydex cushioning to shoes and football helmets, and helped introduce new materials like carbon fiber to the footwear industry.

Jenkins is a distinguished runner himself, having won several marathons and participated in the U.S. Olympic marathon trials. In 2009, he joined Deckers Outdoor, the $1.5 billion southern California company that owns brands like Ugg, Teva, Mozo, and Hoka One One. Deckers has about 3,200 employees, and operates 120 of its own retail stores (including the location in Hawaii, below).


We spoke with Jenkins, Senior Vice President of Innovation and Product Development, in December. He has strong opinions about innovation — just see point #1, below. He also believes that it can and must happen in every industry, not just in Silicon Valley tech. Highlights of our conversation with Jenkins are below.

1. ‘If the CEO Doesn’t Give a Damn about Innovation, Just Quit.’

You may have a budget or a lab, but nothing ever happens. With our CEO, Angel Martinez, his directions to me were simple. The little things are nice, but every once in a while you’ve got to move the needle at this company. The CEO really has to care, and empower innovation like that.

2. Committees Squash Innovation

When I hear people say that they’ve got to take an idea or a project to the committee, my reaction is, ‘Just shoot me now.’ What great idea has ever come out of a committee? And committees slow things down. When you’re going out to dinner with your wife, it’s pretty easy to decide where to go. But when you’re in-laws and relatives come to town for the holidays, that takes a lot longer.

3. Don’t Give One Person the ‘Power of No’

We had seven brands, and the president of any of those brands doesn’t have to adopt what my group is pushing. Neither do functional heads, like the head of supply chain. But the key thing is that none of them can stop me from working on it. If everyone in the company is empowered to say no to what you’re doing, you’ll get nowhere. Too many innovation executives have to hope they can get through a gauntlet of no’s, where the VP of manufacturing or marketing or sales or finance can kill an idea. If it only takes one bullet to kill you, it’s pretty hard to survive in that environment. At Deckers, no one has to accept what I’m working on, but they can’t kill it. That’s powerful.

4. Turning Dollars into Ideas, and Ideas into Dollars

I have a stable budget that comes from the organization, and it gets allocated annually. Our definition of innovation is turning ideas into dollars, creating powerful positive change, and moving into the new. That can mean moving into a new process, a new product line, a new business model.

I just find dollars is a very clear way to evaluate what you’re doing. Either you are increasing revenue or reducing costs. We’ve had an innovation function for about 30 months now, and we can see revenue and cost savings in excess of $75 million.

Certainly, you can’t put an ROI on everything you do. So we also measure webinars, conferences, and working sessions we run using the business model canvas or lean startup methodology. We keep track of how many inside and outside innovations we have looked at, how many patents we have filed. All of that is important

5. If You Don’t have R&D, Get Good at Scouting and Building Relationships

As a $2 billion company, we don’t have the luxury to pay people to come up with ideas, or build our own R&D function. But we compete against people who have advanced concepts teams and R&D groups. But in my opinion, those teams tend to come up with items. Items are good, but items don’t drive big businesses, and they don’t create new brands.

A few years ago, when everyone was talking about barefoot running and stripped-down footwear, we heard about Hoka One One. They make shoes that are extremely stable, with a lot of cushioning to them. We built a relationship with them. It was very early — they’d sold 400 or 500 pairs of shoes. But we made an investment in them, and they kept growing. In 2013, we decided to purchase them. Hoka is now the fastest-growing running shoe brand in the world. That happened because we identified that opportunity when it went against the prevailing trends, we were aware of Hoka, and we secured a relationship.

Before coming here, I spent 25 years licensing new footwear products and technologies to Reebok and Nike and the U.S. military. That showed me how many barriers there are to outside ideas coming into the industry, even though massive ideas like Nike Air and Reebok DMX have come from outside. It taught me that when any idea comes in to Deckers, we may not like the odd or quirky inventor presenting an idea, it may not be perfected, but we’re going to look for the good in it. We will build on what they bring us — not try to show them how smart we are by crushing it. It does not take any insight, vision, or skill to crush an idea. I like to say that any jackass can kick down a barn, but it requires a skilled carpenter to build one.

A lot of people say there are more smarts outside their organization’s walls than inside them. But how you behave when outsiders come to you with ideas — that shows whether you really believe there are more IQ points outside the office.

6. Who’s on Our Team

The one common thing on the innovation team is that almost everyone has started or tried to start a small business. So they are entrepreneurs, not corporate people pretending to be entrepreneurs. We have five people, and a few outside consultants.

7. The Best Reporting is Face-to-Face

Most executives won’t read a 25- or 30-page innovation team report. So I find the two things that work best are walking to somebody’s office and talking, or and if it’s across the world, get on the telephone. Those conversations are specific and they’re targeted. Your goal is that you want the person to speak candidly with you. When you get people together in a group, they tend to huddle in the corner of conservatism.

Those one-to-one conversations are absolutely time consuming, but it’s tremendously empowering and informative for us.

8. Planning is Everything

We can’t plan the outcome of innovation, but we know that our colleagues have to plan their businesses, and so we have to do planning within innovation.

Eisenhower said, “Plans are nothing; planning is everything.” So at the beginning of the year, we tell people, “Here are three or four major initiatives we’re working on.” Our boss knows that, the brand managers know that, the product line managers know that. Innovation should not be a magic trick where you unveil the idea at the end and shock everyone.

Along the way, as we’re developing things, people know they don’t have to accept it, but they’re observing it. Pretty soon, they say, “When will this be ready? How can we start planning for it?”

9. To Survive, You Need to Show Results

If you’ve had an innovation function for three or four years, and you can’t justify your existence in terms of dollars or sense — revenues or cost savings — I would start to worry. Something is dramatically wrong. Maybe you’ve worked on the wrong projects. Or maybe the “VPs of No” are ruling the palace.