Antonio Zea is the head of innovation for soccer at Adidas, so his goal to have soccer players view the company as cutting-edge may not be a surprise. But the way in which he enlists his team to innovate, and his view of innovation itself, are grounded in what he sees as the greatest resource of all – people, their passion, and their ideas.
When Antonio first joined on with Adidas after graduating from college, his obsession for shoes (he confesses to be a “shoe dog”) led him to work with footwear within the company. His passion for shoe-work was obvious. In 1997 he was accepted into a highly selective programme at Adidas’s Bavarian headquarters (only four employees were admitted his year) that taught participants how to make trainers and hiking boots by hand. He hiked two miles through snow to “learn how to cut leather with a knife by hand, how to stitch shoes together”, giving him first-hand experience and an uncommonly deep understanding of what he loved – shoes.
Antonio’s openness to follow his passion down different paths informs how he approaches innovation and how he motivates his team to innovate. He believes that the “key to innovation…is allowing people to ‘fail and fail often’” and even encourages his team to not only make their products using 3D printers, but to also “break them, modify and try again.” The reason he encourages this embrace of failure is that he feels making any sort of progress is “not a sprint, it’s a marathon.” It’s this ethic of journeying, then, that is an essential aspect of the innovative process he espouses.
Also important to Antonio’s process for innovation is his sense of humility and community. He often keeps up with new manufacturing techniques in different industries such as “phones and cars in particular, to understand developments in materials and looks.” German car parts supplier Continental had technology in rubber compounds that “helped Adidas look at new developments in shoe bottoms and traction.” Antonio stays open-minded to innovation in other industries because he believes, “A good idea can come from anywhere.” His humility and open-mindedness help create the bonds in which people can learn, grow, and innovate together across industries. Indeed, leaders such as Antonio are helping foster the sort of healthy interdependencies that enable an open flow of ideas and collaboration. It’s this sort of effort that allows us all to create together in ways that might not be possible individually.
Antonio’s embrace of journeying, and his openness to learn from different industries, highlight what is central to his approach to innovation: an appreciation for people, their passion, and their ideas. His take on innovation underscores that in the 21st century, the key to progress isn’t simply in having great products, but in the creativity and ingenuity of the people behind those products.
This post is informed by the article “Kicking Footballs into the Future” by Emma Jacobs