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A case study of innovation at the Olympics

Posted on September 6th, 2016 by in Chemical Manufacturing Excellence


The Olympics is a huge event for every brand represented there, even more so for those who supply the kit that the athletes perform in. For many, this is a chance to showcase the latest and greatest in innovation, performance and style.

For decades, Nike have been using the Olympic games to launch new products and demonstrate their capability as a world leading sport manufacturer. Track events are where Nike focus a lot of attention, with the games being used to show off the latest and greatest running shoes (amongst many other things).

And so it is in Rio. Nike have developed the Nike Zoom Superfly Elite for the event. I want to take a little look at some of the parts of their design process, since I think it makes a nice case study in product development and innovation.

Find Your Stakeholders First

One of the first steps in designing a new product is to fully understand the problem. And part of doing that is to identify the stakeholders for the project. There are a range of different stakeholders for Nikes running shoes, but perhaps the most important is the athlete who will be wearing the shoes. In this case, it’s the end user who is the key stakeholder for the project.

Nike have chosen to work closely with Jamaican sprinter Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce in designing their new shoes. Not because she is the only person who will wear the finished product at the Olympic Games, but because she is representative of the end user Nike are trying to design for.

The advantage of focusing on a real person, rather than an abstract group, is that Nike are able to ask her questions, test their designs in a realistic environment and gather feedback quickly.

Defining What First

In order for any project to be successful, there needs to be a clear and unambiguous target. Nike needed to be aiming for something which directly benefits their key stakeholder.

In this case, their target was to make Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce 1 mile per hour faster. They started with a clear, high level idea of what they were trying to achieve. Only after that did Nike start coming up with ideas of how they might achieve it.

Apply Existing Ideas In New Ways

There were two ways Nike thought they could make Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce 1 mile per hour faster. Firstly, by reducing the weight of the shoes and secondly, by increasing the stiffness of the soles.

So Nike took inspiration from nature, in particular the structural make-up of ocean creatures, to design the sole for their new shoe.

The bark-like structure they came up with is similar to that implemented in a range of different products, but is one that hadn’t been put into the sole of a shoe before. Nike took inspiration from existing technology and design and implemented it in a new way.

Validate Quickly

Because the Nike team were working directly with one athlete to test their designs, they could get feedback very quickly. They used 3D printing to quickly test different versions of the sole design and make small changes in response to what they learned.

They were able to shorten the feedback loop and validate (or invalidate) their ideas quickly. Getting rapid feedback can be a huge benefit in any design project, especially one where the output is new or innovative. Working out whether you’re on the right track or not can save a huge amount of time and money.

The Results

In case you missed it, the Nike Zoom Superfly Elite running shoes have been worn by a lot of Nike sponsored athletes at Rio. Although in testing the shoes proved to help Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce reduce her 100m time, it wasn’t quite enough for Gold in Rio. She walked away with a bronze in the 100m and a silver in the 4x100m relay. The Jamaican team lost out in the relay to the team from USA, who were also wearing the Nike Zoom Superfly Elite shoes.



All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.

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