An ex-Nike innovator on how to innovate through cross-pollination and sports metaphors

We spoke to ex-Nike innovator Erez Morag after his talk at the Tripartite Economic Summit in Auckland last week.

Dr Erez Morag is a former innovation expert at Nike and the founder of Acceler8 Performance, where he is focused on devising ways of translating innovative sport science into innovative training routines to enhance high-speed decision making.

Morag studied biomechanics in the US where he got a PhD in the structure and function of the foot. In 1998, he was headhunted by Nike where he worked in the football division before contributing to Nike projects concerned with linking sports and business innovations, like Nike Football+ which helped create physical and digital communities, linking football players in over 25 countries.

As a public speaker and innovation 'thinkfluencer', Morag’s central thesis is that the secret to innovation is a kind of egalitarian openness that leads to sharing of ideas and opinions. He calls it ‘cross-pollination’ which, he says has four aspects: cross-pollination of culture, expertise, ranks and insights.

Cross-pollination of culture is about exposing people to a diversity of cultures and ideas. He talks with great reverence for Bill Bowerman, the late Nike co-founder whose legacy still runs (no pun intended) through the company, and his trip to New Zealand in 1962 where Bowerman learned about jogging (shout out to Arthur Lydiard), taking it back to the US and helping start what would become a worldwide craze and a billion dollar industry. 

Cross-pollination of expertise is enabling people with different skills and from different disciplines to interact, whether or not there are: "We don't live where one person or one group can do everything,” he says. “We really need to find that common denominator between different areas of expertise to come up with a great solution that will deliver meaningful results.”

Cross-pollination of ranks is about giving everyone, no matter their rank, a chance to be heard. “Good ideas can come from anywhere, whether it's the CEO or the most junior person in the company,” Morag says. “In order to facilitate a culture of innovation, leaders need to allow subordinates to speak first to avoid a situation where the leaders bias the entire group or the entire discussion and everybody else just paraphrases what they were saying. You want the best ideas? Let your team speak first and be the last one to connect all the dots. That's your job as a leader.”

Cross-pollination of insights is about tying it all together and combining all that pollen into something useful: “How do you grab all those insights, add them up and identify the right opportunity?”

As well as flora-based analogies, Morag loves to talk about business in sports metaphors. “In sports, just like in business, it's a very competitive environment and you're always looking for marginal gains,” he says. “And where do you find marginal gains? You usually find them in new data, in new insights.”

Here are his favourites:

Control the ball: “Just like in sports where you want to control the ball, whether in soccer or golf or rugby, the ball can be used as a metaphor in business. Every business, every organisation, can identify the ball. The ball is the one thing that is most critical. Let's say in science. In science, the ball is clean data. Without clean data, nothing's going to work. Every business can identify the ball, but what's the most important element for them to succeed? So when I talk about controlling the ball, I mean keep developing the skills that will allow you to protect that one element that without your business is not going to succeed.”

Every muscle counts: “I take the example of the flexor in the big toe and its contribution to speed. It's not always just the big muscles. And big muscles can be higher ranked individuals, can be the marketing budget. Sometimes frontline, junior or new employees can contribute good ideas just like the flexor of the big toe contributes to speed."

Play bigger than your size:“In our world today, for a team to play bigger than its size, the best way to do it is to make sure that the baton is passed from one player to another quickly and accurately. Because a lot of time is lost not by the work that individuals do but by the way information is transitioned. When you're looking at collaborating between cultures or between cultures, it’s really important to pay attention to how quickly and how accurately communication is passed.”

Main image: Erez Morag (L) with Ronaldinho