What’s the global impact of your work at Nike?
Every runner wants to be faster, go further or have more fun, so the ability to in some way influence that is incredible. Add in basketball or the footballs, and the amount of athletes that Nike connects with, and it is unparalleled.
The aspect that I enjoyed the most about working as an osteopath was the diagnostic part. It’s the same in innovation: what is the primary thing we need to achieve to better?
The idea of continuing to push what is possible is what the 400 people I work with get out of bed for.
Our job is to make athletes better. And we work with athletes right at the pinnacle as well as the once-a-week runner who just want to go faster, further or have more fun. The scope of that is amazing, the power of the brand is phenomenal.
How did you get the job at Nike?
I had been working as an osteopath, when I’d started to look at my own sport – rowing – and the mechanics of it, and problem-solving why I had a sore back. And out of that I set up a start-up company called BAT Logic that has now gone on to do some pretty amazing things for athletes around the world.
From there, I worked with UK Sport during the London Olympiad, within their Marginal Gains team, specifically the performance medicine discipline – then I got the offer from Nike.
My future boss at Nike said, “You started off helping some individuals and that was cool...and you worked with some big teams and all that, but why don’t you just come to Nike and help us change the world?”
Regarding innovation in footwear – surely we’ll reach a threshold at some point?
True, but it doesn’t have to be just the bio mechanical advantages we innovate against. If you can make an athlete more confident – and confidence is the currency of all athletes no matter what they do – they’re going to be able to do things beyond their expected potential.
If you give the athlete the experience where they feel like they could run forever, even just for a moment in their run, then they start thinking, “Hey I could even do more.”
So from that point of view we’re always going to find new ways to move [the threshold].
So sports innovation is about psychology as well?
Oh, massively. Confidence is always the thing to unlock for any athlete. Every athlete wants to get better but not many want to change. The biggest challenge within innovating for athletes is getting them to try something new, and that often comes down to confidence.
If you have something that actually makes an athlete better and it doesn’t feel good and it doesn’t look good, it’s a really hard sell to get them in there. There’s a lot of emerging science into how the athlete feels when they’re training and how that has a significant impact on their performance. Deion Sanders [American pro footballer] was the first person to articulate this as: “Look good, feel good, play good”. If you can allow an athlete to look good, which is their own perception, they’re going to feel good. And if they’re confident in the fit, feel and performance of the product or products, they are going to play good. The home run is when we can move the needle in all three.
What happens in Nike’s Innovation Kitchen?
We try and look at things in an obtuse way. We’re tasked with creating not just the new but the better. So how do we make everything that existed before, redundant? It’s that type of thinking.
It’s about trying to keep your headspace free so you can have multiple ideas without judging them, that’s key, because often as humans we can be very quick to judge or dismiss the new, as often, great ideas disguise themselves as bad ones in the early days.
I don’t think I’ve done my best work sitting at a desk, under a fluoro light. It’s often piecing together a conversation here or an observation there, something you read three years ago.
Once you’ve got the problem statement or diagnosis, it’s just a matter of breaking that down until you can gain some momentum on it.
What’s your view of failure?
It is a fundamental of innovation - if you are not failing, you are not pushing hard enough. Unlike my time at uni, where I was failing because I was not pushing hard enough! I had an incredible experience at RMIT but it wasn’t always positive - I failed pathology as a subject. My professor said, “If you sit there and spend enough time at that microscope and that book, you’ll pass.”
That was a turning point for me. That’s something now I pride myself on, just spending more time with the problem, more than other people would be prepared to. In all things you need to gain a competitive advantage, and for an osteopath, that is the skill of problem solving, which is something I have taken with me along my career.
Failure’s actually really important. You’ve got to become comfortable with it. At the end of the day, more things are going to fail than work. If everything you’re trying is working then are you really creating something new?
Where do you get your ideas from?
They can come from anywhere. The idea for a traction pattern came from knocking over my coffee - I would love to say I thought about it, but really I just spilled my coffee. I was trying to understand artificial surfaces... and I went to pick up my spilled coffee cup and because it was upside down, it had captured the turf. That Starbucks grande cup led us to then go down a path of looking at traction in a different way.
We have an incredible freedom to create some amazing work but we have a big responsibility as well. If you take that too seriously and you get bogged down by that it stops being fun. And when you’re not having fun, you lose a lot of headspace.
How has studying osteopathy helped your career?
The discipline, methodology, and the problem-solving you’re taught in osteopathy - those skills are transferable. If you’re seeing your career as a hands-on therapist the opportunities are not going to be as diverse. But the ability to effectively problem-solve is highly valued in every industry.
For example, everyone is trying to be innovative these days, so how do you differentiate yourself? You have to find a unique way to solve a problem. I feel really lucky that I had some very inspiring minds influence me over my time at RMIT, both the faculty and friends. Our graduating class spawned many diverse thinkers and exceptionally talented individuals who have done some incredible things since graduating.
You mentor RMIT students – why is that important to you?
I was lucky enough to have a few informal mentors when I was at RMIT. I had a bit of a bumpy final year and I had incredible support from the staff – to the point where I wouldn’t have got through my last year without it. That wasn’t anything formal, it was just them saying “Hey, we should help this guy out.” Good people.
Being in student in 2016 is harder than ever before, because there is so much noise. I graduated 12 years ago now and it’s a different world. The access to information that students have must be so paralysing. I hope as a mentor I can help filter some of the noise for students so they can navigate the complexity of studying while keeping an eye on the horizon.
Paul Francis graduated with a Bachelor of Applied Science (Clinical) Osteopathic Science in 2004. He is the Senior Director of Advanced Product within the Innovation Kitchen at Nike.