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On a Red Wing and a Naysayer

November 2, 2007

I’m always interested in companies that share stories of their mistakes because (as Dave Snowden quite frequently points out) we learn more from mistakes than successes. An article I ran across a few days ago said Red Wing Shoes initially failed at trying to move out of its traditional realm of work boots into the more profitable casual shoe market in 2005. Luckily they recognized they were suffering from entrained thinking:

“Our thinking was constricted by 100 years of being work boot people,” said Rick Appelsies, who oversees what is now the company’s casual shoes division.

Predictably, the early mistake was to try and let the (heretofore successful) work boot designers create the casual shoes. The results were anemic. Finally they brought in a designer from Nike (and Adidas), Shantel Cronk. Not only did she shake up the design department, she also rattled cages in the executive suite. She brought new designs to them that challenged their entrained thinking. Not surprisingly, they told her the new designs didn’t fit their brand. Luckily she said “No” back to them. Appelsies said she beat her head on the table and said “Don’t you get it? We’ve got to be different than what we are, and what we’ve been.”

Entering a new market like this is clearly a move into the complex domain of the Cynefin framework. The jury is still out on Red Wing, but they’ve made some correct choices by moving away from entrained thinking and listening to people with different ideas.

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