Tinker Hatfield, VP of Innovation at Nike: “Just Innovate”

by David Eckoff

Tinker Hatfield Originally published May 2007

I recently attended a speech by Tinker Hatfield, Vice President of Innovation at Nike. Here is a summary of the most interesting things I heard about his innovation process.

By way of background, Hatfield is the renowned designer of many of Nike’s most popular and innovative sneaker designs. He oversees Nike’s “Innovation Kitchen”.

* Hatfield doesn’t design in a vacuum — but he also doesn’t listen to focus groups too much. As an innovator trying to do something new, he says he needs to seek the truth and have his info as unedited as possible. “Focus groups are an unreal environment where people are not truly themselves,” he says.

* Instead, he gets out in the field and talks with athletes, gets to know about their needs directly. For example, he cycles with Lance Armstrong, etc.

* “Designing is like competition.” (DE: interesting perspective, from a person who spends a lot of time with athletes who are competitive at the highest levels.) Phil Knight often says that business is like war without the bullets. (DE: the athletic shoe industry is intensely competitive, I can see how they feel that way. I like that sense of urgency to win against tough competition.)

* “I’m paid to think outside the box, disrupt, do things other people have never done before. You need to push yourself to find the truth, and go outside normal processes.”

* Nike nurtures and cherishes the creative process, the process of innovation. “Phil Knight wouldn’t know a good show if he saw it. He doesn’t understand the product or how it got there. But he believes in other people and he has trust. That makes him different than many other CEO’s.”

* As companies get bigger, with more layers, a process of trust is critically important.

* Hatfield’s secret to getting resources and doing special things: wield clout from the company you keep (ie, Michael Jordan, Lance Armstrong, etc).

* “You may be a business person or a creative person, but when you start to look at issues from a variety of directions, you have an advantage.”

* Identify consumer groups looking for the next new thing. At Nike, we are leaders. When we fail is when we are followers.”

* When Nike was seeking to sign baseball star Alex Rodriguez, he had one question: “If I sign with you, does that mean you will make me a pair of the Air Jordan IX’s?” Because when he was a kid, he wanted a pair and his mom couldn’t afford them. Hearing how powerful that is, seeing things from the customer’s point of view, changed how Tinker looked at developing new products.

* “When you sit down to create something new, what you do is a combination of everything you’ve done and seen in your life.”

Related Links:

  • Interview with Tinker Hatfield (USA Today)
  • Video interview with Tinker Hatfield (YouTube)(Photo credit: boltronic)##

    12/15/2110: Note from D.E. about reader comments on this story: I’ve received an unusually large number of comments from readers who seem to think that this blog is a direct hotline to Nike or Mr. Hatfield. I’m amused when I receive these comments in the moderation queue; but not fond of spending time moderating comments that are clearly misdirected. Therefore, I am going to turn off comments on this post. New irony to the slogan, “Just Do It”! :)

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