Innovating to Failure

I used to tell people I wasn’t a runner, mainly because of the very obvious lack of running experience prior to August, 2012. But since August 26, 2012 (according to Strava), I’ve gone on 540 runs, totaling just shy of 2,500 miles (2,496.2 miles to be exact, so by the time you read this, it will probably be over 2,500). So now I guess I’m a runner, or at least you would think so if you browsed my Instagram feed.

So this might look like a running shoe review, but it’s not. And I am in no way sponsored by or given products by any of the shoe companies mentioned herein. It’s a review about “innovation.” But first, let’s talk shoes…

Some highlights from my PureConnect collection (from left): PureConnect 1s, 2s, 3s, and 4s

When I started, it took me a while to find a pair of running shoes that I liked. I tried Nike Frees (made my feet and knees hurt), then Saucony Kinvaras (the uppers started falling apart after about 100 miles), and somehow ended up with a pair of Brooks PureConnects. Loved them. Got a second pair. Then got a pair of PureConnect 2s when the first ones wore out, and they were even better than the PureConnect 1s. Got a pair of PureGrit 2s as a trail running option, and they fit just like the PureConnect 2s. Got a second pair of PureConnect 2s. Had a brief fling with a pair of short-lived PureDrift 2s. Got a pair of PureConnect 3s, which were very similar to the 2s. I’ve owned and run in a lot of Brooks sneakers.

Which brings us to the present. Recently, Brooks came out with their PureConnect 4s and PureGrit 4s. Since my PureGrit 2s had a “lace closure malfunction” (one of the lace eyelets ripped), I thought it would be a great opportunity to upgrade to the latest and greatest. After all, I’ve loved all the shoes from the Pure line over multiple model updates.

Left: well worn Brooks PureGrit 2s / Right: not well worn but very distressed Brooks PureGrit 4s

Something changed.

The PureGrit 4s weren’t very comfortable out of the box, which I just chalked up to, “hey, new shoes, I’ll break them in.” After about 100 miles, the uppers started to shred. The heel collars started to rip. They’ve never been overly comfortable and I’m never excited to put them on, unlike the PureGrit 2s, where putting them on got me stoked for the run. I will say the soles on the PureGrit 4s are a big improvement, especially during the Pacific Northwest winter trail running mud season, but that’s the only nice thing I can say about them.

Brooks customer service has been incredibly helpful, sending me a replacement pair. But they were more painful than the first pair. So they sent me the Cascadia 11s to try. I’ve put about 20 miles on those so far, but they’re not nearly as comfortable…

And the PureConnect 4s… the upper creases between the big toe and the second toe (index toe?), rubbing against the top of my foot/toes.

But this isn’t really about the shoes. It’s about the process that resulted in the shoes.

The pursuit of new, the what’s next-ness, the new hotness. I get it. I like the new hotness as much as anyone. But is it possible to over-innovate? To innovate past good, past great, and loop all the way back around to failure?

What was wrong with the PureGrit 2s and 3s? Were there tons of complaints about them that moved the design team to reinvent the shoe? Or is this just innovating for newness sake so the “new and improved” badge can be applied and touted as a benefit?

(It’s not just shoes, either. For years I wore Gap straight leg jeans. I liked the way they fit. And then one day Gap straight leg jeans changed. I was set adrift in a sea of denim, until I found Lucky jeans. And then they changed. So now I’m on to Levi’s, with mixed results.)

So maybe it’s me. Anyone that knows me knows that I’m picky and particular. But it turns out it isn’t just me. The “most liked negative reviews” on the Brooks Running website were the exact issues I was having! With both the PureGrit 4s and the PureConnect 4s.

The “Most Liked Negative Review” for the PureGrit 4s, which is maybe an oxymoron?
The “Most Liked Negative Review” for the PureGrit 4s, which is maybe an oxymoron?
The “Most Liked Negative Review” for the PureConnect 4s.
The “Most Liked Negative Review” for the PureConnect 4s.

On the PureGrit 4 review, it specifically says, “I literally ran in them 5 times (120km +-) and already the fabric between the Hex protective patches on the upper has started wearing through!” This is exactly what happened to me. And the same thing happened to me as what the reviewer above said about the PureConnect 4s.

The last line in the PureGrit 4 review sums up my thoughts exactly.

“The best shoe in this range was the PURE GRIT 2… if it ain’t broke don’t mess with it.”

It turns out that now discontinuing the PureConnect model. Could it be because the PureConnect 4s had a significant flaw and people stopped buying them, which in turn created no demand to continue with the shoe? They say the PureFlow 5 is replacing it, but reviews on that one online aren’t great either.

You probably won’t believe me, but the color on these Brooks Mazamas makes me run faster.
You probably won’t believe me, but the color on these Brooks Mazamas makes me run faster.

Again, I’m not trying to hate specifically on Brooks. I was lucky enough to win a new pair of their new Brooks Mazamas, and so far they’re pretty good (though I agree with some online reviews that say the sole is a bit hard and thin). I’m still with you, Brooks!

But I gotta be honest, I think we should see other road shoes. New Balance, Saucony, and Mizuno have some promising options for me to check out in the 4mm — 8mm drop range. Or maybe something from a smaller manufacturer like Newton or Skora might be my new go-to.

Let’s say one of these new-to-me shoe companies works out, and I find a pair of shoes that I like. How long will they continue to make the shoe in the same way before they innovate to failure? At the time of this writing, Saucony is up to the Kinvara 7, meaning they’ve updated this shoe six times already. How many runners have they left disappointed with each subsequent change?

We keep moving forward. Technology improves. Change happens. The past and the obsolete are left behind. Fashion trends and colorways come and go. So how can we avoid the pitfalls of innovating to failure, of instead going from good to great, going from good to garbage?

Figure out why you’re changing

Is there a problem? Is there a demand for change, and is this an internal demand or a customer demand? Are you changing because it’s expected in your industry? Are you changing because your competitors are changing? Has there been a material breakthrough?

Once you’ve defined why you’re changing, analyze that why. Don’t change just because you’re expected to change; change because there is an opportunity for a genuine improvement to be made.

Consider the repercussions

Are you okay with some people being unhappy with change, no matter what it may be? Are you okay with people having such a negative impression with the change that they might switch to a competitor’s product? Will some people (hopefully a majority) absolutely loving the changes?

Being prepared for the repercussions, both positive and negative, can help in determining how to release your changes. Look at the iPhone 7 with the removal of the headphone jack: Apple positioned this change as a step forward for wireless audio, not as the removal of a traditional connection point. This change is also a reflection of Apple’s brand — for better or worse, they’re changing our expectations. Now, anyone else that releases a smartphone with a headphone jack will be seen by Apple fans as being “old technology.”

Listen to and incorporate feedback

When something isn’t right, or even if it is right, are you listening to feedback?

Sometimes the best brand interaction isn’t when you’re successful, but when you fail and how you react to this failure. In my situation with Brooks, they tried their best to create a positive brand interaction when I had issues with the PureGrit 4s — they sent me a replacement pair, for free. When those didn’t work, they had me return them (for free) and sent a pair of Cascadia 11s to try. Unfortunately for me, while customer service was great in allowing me to exchange the products, the product didn’t live up to this brand experience. But what really irked me was their denial of culpability even when other people documented problems with the shoe in online reviews on their own site. It wasn’t my fault the shoes started falling apart; the shoes failed because they innovated to failure.

So what could they have done differently, beyond trying to find a replacement pair of shoes that also didn’t meet my needs? They could have listened to and acknowledged the feedback, and then integrated this feedback into the next iteration of the product. Imagine if Brooks had heard I had a bad experience with the PureGrit 4s and offered to let me test out a pair of PureGrit 5s and give my feedback… I would have appreciated that Brooks acknowledged that there were some issues with their last round of shoes and genuinely wanted their customers’ help in improving them. As for now, we’ll have to wait and see what the reviews are (there aren’t any on their website as of writing this).

People will always be unhappy with change. But we must change or risk becoming obsolete. The challenge is to not change just for the sake of change, but to understand why you need to change, understand the ramifications, and listen to both positive and negative feedback from this change.

“If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.”

– General Eric Shinseki, U.S. Army Chief of Staff (1999–2003)

As companies, and as people, we can learn more from our failures than from our successes. The biggest failure, however, is to do nothing with what we learn from failure.

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