The New Breed of Innovator: Engineering and Advanced Thinking

The New Breed of Innovator: Engineering and Advanced Thinking

Edith Harmon’s bachelor’s and master’s degrees are in mechanical engineering. But today, she heads one of the most dynamic advanced products groups in the clothing industry. Unlike a fashion company that makes shirts or jackets, New Balance makes state-of-the-art technology to support your body while you exercise. Athletic apparel, then, is more than fashion. It is materials, manufacturing, ergonom­ics, biomedical, and lifestyle all rolled into some clothes and a pair of shoes. Harmon was exposured to technology during a brief stint at GM followed by a career of designing aircraft engines at GE, and even a stint designing alternative power plants in a start-up in the 1980s. But she wanted to connect with consumers, and she wanted products with shorter life spans that she could follow from inception to market success. in the aircraft industry, you are lucky to see any real innovations, and one product literally lasts a lifetime.

With all of this engineering focus, how did she end up as the manager of future product concepts in what many see as a fashion – focused industry? Like Kapur and Jones, Harmon also has a well-tuned right brain to balance her engineering left brain. Raised in New York City, she grew up with strong exposure to and a love for the arts, with regular visits to museums and the theater. When she was an undergraduate engineering student, her favorite courses were art his­tory and film. She gained an appreciation and respect for the more artistic people, an appreciation that she brought with her to her job at New Balance.

When you meet Harmon, you really aren’t sure how to classify her; she fits none of the stereotypes of the engineer, designer, or busi­ness executive. Harmon meets the criteria for the new breed of inno­vator. she is a polyglot and can talk with equal comfort to designers, marketing, material engineers, and manufacturing. she is a skilled manager of the multiple disciplines needed to produce the new ideas developed in the advanced product concepts. Harmon fosters the kind of thinking that allows her team to balance creative possibilities with costs and production realities.

When Harmon hires someone to join her group, team dynamics is one of the main drivers. People need to respect each other. They need to balance each other; there should be no duplication in talents and effort, and each person’s skills must be valued in the team. Each person must be self-motivated. Harmon sees her role as finding talented people who fit this mold and then giving them the environ­ment and resources to excel.

Harmon encourages her team to try new ideas, as long as they fit in the larger business case of New Balance without the need to jus­tify or defend them to the larger company. As a manager, she creates a buffer zone that protects her team and gives them freedom to explore. The goal is for the team to create fresh, usable ideas that bal­ance aesthetic and functional appeal and that do not meet a precon­ceived notion—in other words, ideas that are innovative.

In managing the Advanced Products Group, Harmon focuses on the process rather than the end result. She gives her team the free­dom to explore and meander within the process, the flexibility to obtain insights and findings that will direct their path to an end result. This freedom encourages self-motivation, a critical ingredient for innovation, and the process is a requirement to replace the lone inventor with the group innovator, who churns out a wealth of fresh, workable ideas. The group has balance, whereas the individual typi­cally does not.

One of the many successes for Harmon’s Advanced Products Group is the 1100 Ultra Trail Shoe. The shoe is a premium running shoe for trails, featuring waterproof, coated uppers, integral “scree” gaiters to prevent dust and pebbles from getting into the shoe, and rubberized toe bumpers to protect the toes. The outer sole looks almost like a tire tread, engineered for traction in rough terrain, pro­tecting the sole from bruising, and allowing water to pour through the shoe (more on that in a minute).

The team embraced a user-centered design approach from start to finish. In developing the product, they focused on “ultra runners” who race for at least 50 miles and perhaps even 100 miles at a time. By meeting these runners’ needs, the team knew that they would meet the needs of the average trail runner as well. The research was holistic, representing a range of stakeholders interviewed from race directors to the publisher of UltraRunning magazine—and, of course, ultra runners. Three different types of ultra runners were inter­viewed: “newbies” just getting into it, “veterans” to whom ultra run­ning is the center of their lifestyle, and “elites” who are driven to win these grueling races and are often sponsored by shoe companies. Three of each type were interviewed in their homes, on the trail, and at races. The team spent many hours running with these folks and experiencing their world firsthand. To make sure they understood the needs of runners in all different terrains, they conducted studies of runners in places they couldn’t get to, like Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Alaska. Here, they sent the runners disposable cameras for them to record their experiences, and then they conducted phone interviews using the images as a catalyst.

one interesting aspect of ultra running discovered by the team was that these runners intentionally run through streams. When run­ning 100 miles, feet begin to burn and swell. Cool water is a way to refresh irritated feet. So Harmon’s team wanted to both allow water in and then whisk it out. Near the toe is an open hydrophobic mesh that lets water in but dries quickly, while in the sole are “drain and dry” holes that open while a person is running to let the water back out.

The team also researched related sports, such as adventure rac­ing and orienteering, and other lifestyle products that address related needs identified through their research. A business case was built, including branding and strategic research, understanding the com­petitor landscape, and determining how to position and distribute the new product—namely, in specialty stores.

The team followed the type of process we discuss in Chapter 9, “A Process for Product Innovation.” As soon as they understood the opportunity, they began extended brainstorming sessions followed by prototyping of the concepts. Any feasible concepts went immediately into usability testing. Many of the users they had interviewed tried the working prototypes and then gave the team feedback. After mak­ing further modifications, the team repeated the process until they had designed a great product.

This process is the ideal product development process. Few teams in practice are given the resources and support to follow such a complete, user-driven design process. But the results speak for themselves. The shoe was awarded a gold award from Running Network, and sales have been at about 10,000 pairs per year—quite good for a specialty product like the 1100 Ultra. It takes a manager like Harmon to develop and support a team and environment for this approach toward innovation and developing new products.

As a manager of the Advanced Products Group, Harmon’s goals include the following:

1. Make resources available—not just time and money, but also the freedom to fail.

2. Create innovation groups of individuals, each of whom has some distinct skills to bring to the table, so that the value of each person’s ideas contributes to mutual respect within the groups.

3. Foster self-motivation within the groups to encourage enthu­siastic participation stemming from belief in and enjoyment of the process and goals.