Innovation Beyond the Digital Sector: Interview with Grimur Fjeldsted of ECCO

ECCO, a world-leading brand of shoes combining style and comfort, has caught our attention by claiming it “built its success on great design and leather quality, and innovative technology.” Intrigued by the critical nature innovation seems to have in the company’s culture, Savage reached out to Grimur Fjeldsted, the Head of Digital Innovation at the Innovation Lab ECCO, to learn more about what innovation means to him and how he nurtured a culture geared towards it in his organization.

S: You’ve been with ECCO since 2009. Tell our readers a bit about how your role evolved within the company.

GF: I have been so fortunate to create my own jobs within the company. I actually started as a flash developer and interaction designer. In that phase I started the social media efforts on my own initiative and when that project got more and more traction, I became the global social media manager within the company and was able to build a team around me, as well as to roll social media efforts out into our markets world-wide. Later on I joined our newly established innovation lab and switched from social media to digital innovation, where I work today as the head of digital innovation.

S: When most people think innovation they tend to think of tech companies. What was different in your mind about ECCO that led it as an apparel and fashion company to explore areas such as "internet of things, apps, retail technology, collaborative economy, big data, social business, business models & marketing.” 

GF: Innovation has always been a big part of ECCO's DNA, also in times where digital was something that appeared only on your clock radio. In regards to digital innovation, the first wave was within tech companies, but today every industry is affected by the change. Some industries are affected earlier than others, but now we live in a time where even the more traditional industries – like the shoe business – are all highly effected by the change both in terms of the change in consumer behavior, but also internally within a company. The quote that today every company is a software company, or at least should become one, is quite true is my opinion. ECCO is the only major shoe company to own and operate its own production and retail facilities. And we take great responsibility in being the best at what we do. That requires us to constantly stay on top in all those areas and to explore new opportunities and business models.

S: One of the key projects you were involved in as a Digital Innovation Manager was that of "WHITE SPACE - Innovation Management.” What did the project consist of and what were its main outcomes?

GF: It is a pilot project to bring forward collaborative and open innovation within the company. Every business unit has their own roles and responsibilities, but it is often more difficult to bring forward ideas that fall in between those business units (in the whitespace). The project was meant to bring the collective intelligence of all employees into the open, to generate exciting new ideas, and to collaborate around them. The main outcome has been a more structured innovation portfolio management. Personally, I also think the project allowed us to discover people with a strong intrapreneurial mindset, and enables us to bring those people together in projects to come.

S: Since May 2015, you’ve also been a member of the Supervisory Board of the company. Do you notice a trend to include the innovation function within board level decision making or are we still a few years away from that happening? What do you believe in contributing to this?

GF: Innovation is hopefully a topic within all supervisory boards and has always been within ECCO. I see a trend of including people with digital and innovation backgrounds in board level decision making, but it is still mainly happening in the US. A transformation like this takes time, especially within large corporations, but I expect it to accelerate world-wide in the coming years.

S: What is the “Innovation Lab ECCO” and how does it plug into the rest of the business?

GF: The innovation lab is kind of a startup and think-tank within the company, where we can test more radical ideas in a safe environment. We pickup challenges from the company, work with them often for a time in isolation, and then feed ideas, prototypes and concept back into the organization. We try to balance our portfolio from being close to the company to a more future oriented approach and experimentation.

S: Many argue that innovation is more about culture than anything else. Would you agree with that? Why/Why not? 

GF: Definitely agree. In my eyes the toughest part is the change management. You can come up with a bunch of good ideas but if the company is not ready for it, you won't succeed. You need to balance your efforts on consumer experience, product- and service-development, new business models and eco-systems, and last but not least company culture and mindset. Most companies will have to focus on all of these areas, but the further you get down the list, the more effort is actually needed.

S: If culture does play a great part, how does one foster a culture of innovation within a large organization? What best practices have you developed over the years towards this?

GF: The project Whitespace mentioned above was a part of this. You need to activate the collective intelligence of the company, through collaboration and empowerment of employees. You also need to open up for collaboration with startups and communities of innovators outside the company, that the organization can learn from. Transparency and collaborations are the keywords.

S: On the lighter side, since you overlooked several social media marketing campaigns in the past. What was the funniest social media blunder you’ve seen (from your company or another)? 

GF: There are many out there. I would like to avoid pin-pointing a single brand, but many blunders are made when some companies try to news-jack trending topics. It is OK to do so, if you are being relevant and true to your brand – but trying to ride every wave, often results in a back-lash and consumers today are very educated and immediately see through that.

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