Back to the future: Lessons from Adidas and the John Lewis Partnership

We live and lead in a world where there is a relentless urge to be ‘future focused’ and futurefit. The need to understand and be ready for disruption in a ‘VUCA’ world – one that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, is important. Certainly companies that ignore and refuse to engage with the future don’t survive that future as Kodak, Borders, Blockbusters and many others have discovered.

CBZ95.adidas14.Brand_Logo_BWpHowever, there can be fatal downside to only focusing on the future, as Adidas discovered.

Thriving into the future with all the inherent challenges and opportunities that such territory brings can depend on a firm appreciation and knowledge of your past. Smart leaders understand the continual tension of managing ‘what to keep’ and ‘what to discard’ as they lead the company forwards. Successful adaption depends on understanding the importance of this balance and getting it right. In fact, there is a third aspect to this successful adaption and that is, ‘what needs to be created’. Meeting the future successfully will most certainly require an innovative edge but finding that edge is build on knowing what to keep and what to discard from the past.

In 1924 two brothers Adi and Rudolf Dassler started a shoe company with a focus on running shoes for athletes. Their shoes hit the ground running and at the 1936 Olympics, Jesse Owens won four gold medals wearing their shoes. After the Second World War the brothers parted company with Rudolf starting Puma whilst Adi remained in change of the original company, renaming it Adidas.

Adidas achieved market dominance that lasted until Nike first made it’s entrance in the January of 1964. As Adidas struggled to keep up with Nike through the 70’s and 80’s their strategies increasingly abandoned their heritage and many of the detailed standards and approach that had characterised Dassler’s leadership. Adidas’ approaches to market and distribution channels were disjointed and by 1989 the company found itself at a crossroad when it came to both their identity and product strategy.

It was at this time that incumbent CEO, Rene Jaggi invited Peter Moore and Rob Strasser to visit Adidas. Both Moore and Strasser had held senior positions at Nike before venturing out into their own consultancy. Having started as visitors, Moore and Strasses soon became consultants to Adidas, before ending up with leadership positions within the company. Moore went on to become the CEO of Adidas America.

It was the ‘fresh eyes’ of Moore and Strasser that helped Adidas realise that in order to claim the future, they first had to reclaim their past.The company came to understand that their heritage was not a burden, but rather the source for shaping their future. They came to understand that their heritage was not a burden, but rather the source for shaping their future. Click To Tweet Drawing on the Adidas past, Moore and Strasser launched Adidas Equipment which was to later become Adidas Performance which today contributes around 75% of Adidas’ operating profit.

The way in which Adidas ‘reclaimed their past’ was to recognise what had made it successful in the first place. The attention to detail – both of product and process; the close relationship forged with the end consumer; the incorporation of feedback into improving product design; simplicity of product that was underpinned by in-depth research; and the emotional appeal that the brand had already created and which be further leveraged. By looking into the past Adidas discovered a way forward.

It was Winston Churchill who said, ‘the further you look back, the further you can look forward’. In the relentless need to keep up, get ahead of the curve and remain relevant it becomes all too easy to jettison the past and what it took to ‘get us here’.

Another company that are intentionally safeguarding their heritage in order to fuel their future is the John Lewis Partnership in the UK. A remarkable company that can trace it early origins to the first store opened by John Lewis in 1864 before Lewis’ son (John) Spedan Lewis founded the John Lewis Partnership in 1920. Spedan Lewis was a businessman who was decades ahead of his time in his thinking, vision and strategy. The ‘Partnership’ offers a unique business model that sees those who arrive every day as ‘partners’ (in a very real sense) and not ‘staff’. I have had first-hand experience of a client where senior leaders refer to others around them as ‘subordinates’. You can’t get further away from the John Lewis Partnership model and ethos than that! What John Lewis has done is to implement a formal initiative to ‘preserve their heritage’ in order to learn from it and allow it to help and shape their future. I have met Julie, the person tasked with this responsibility, and she talks with a great deal of passion and knowledge about the Partnership’s heritage. In a two-day programme titled, ‘Mastering the Future World of Work’ that TomorrowToday Global facilitates as part of the Partnership’s leadership development programme, Julie’s voice provided a wonderful counter-balance to the two days spent ‘looking out the window’ identifying the forces of disruptive change.

Smart companies understand that preserving and growing their company’s brand and market position need not involve a dismantling of their past.  Of course there is a real danger in saying what I have just written. Some may take this to mean that everything about the past should be preserved and then use this logic to justify guarding the status quo and formulae that have brought success. That is not what is being said. In an adaptive world the majority of what it will take to thrive in the future will need to be learnt. This new learning will mean an ‘unlearning’ and ‘relearning’ and the trick is to then know what to preserve, discard and create in this process of ‘new learning’. This is easier said than achieved. Smart leaders pay careful attention to this process and take a direct and personal interest in what it looks like within their company.

The past needs to be a source of inspiration and not a constraint. The past needs to be a source of inspiration and not a constraint Click To Tweet; it needs to be something that fuels the future and liberates the new initiatives required rather than something that drains the resources and holds the strategy hostage. Perhaps asking and answering two (well really four) important and strategic questions can best achieve this difficult balance of holding the past and the future in a healthy tension:

  1. Who are the guardians and what are they guarding?
  2. Who are the paradigm shifters and what are they saying?

As you look to the future, could it be that your greatest strength is to be found in your past?

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