Six steps to ignite an innovative culture and accelerate retail growth

By Nigel Lowe

The global impacts of the pandemic led to retailers moving mountains to achieve in days what would have previously taken years. With limited time and data, and powered by adrenaline, the pandemic has been a catalyst for innovation, leading to rapid changes in strategy, operating models and ways of working. 

In month one, food stores experienced almost 10 per cent growth as customers panic bought, whilst in contrast, clothing stores saw sales decrease by 80 per cent at the height (Office for National Statistics 2021). By removing barriers and traditional hierarchy and acting upon a common purpose, leaders and colleagues united to rapidly innovate in response to this disruption. In the clothing industry we saw fashion brands showcasing catwalks digitally such as Pink Label Congo and other brands reassessing their route to market including partnering with distributors.

Retail leaders recognise the importance of continuing to innovate at pace. Still, they have shared concerns about losing the positive momentum gained during the pandemic

Now is the time to create a more innovative and imaginative culture in your organisation that ignites people's ideas.

Strike the match: Hold a disruptive thinking lab to enable colleagues to collaboratively create problem statements.

Many retailers will have recognised that 'people are their greatest assets' as they navigated through the most innovative time in their history, but how many have kept the flame burning?  

If the company seems burnt out, one way to reignite the flame could be to hold a Disruptive Thinking Lab with individuals from various departments, each bringing different perspectives and working collaboratively to define industry and company-specific challenges (not solutions). In addition, you could include external minds from other worlds to enhance your ability to think outside of the box.

Start by considering problem statements as 'How might we' conversation starters. 

For example: 'How might we get goods to time-poor customers quicker than our competitors?' or 'How might we differentiate our stores from our competitors?' 

By removing the traditional culture of leaders defining opportunity areas and colleagues implementing solutions, you will encourage a shift in conventional hierarchical behaviour and unlock access to the innovative minds of your people.

Fan the right flames: Implement a Dragon's Den style pitch to enable colleagues to present the problem statements with the most significant opportunities to the leadership team.

The leadership team can be pleasantly surprised when they see the quantity and quality of the opportunity statements produced by their people. There is, however, a risk of feeling overwhelmed, resulting in the process slowing down by having too many problem statements to solve.  

To refine the pool of statements, you need an appropriate incubation process enabling only the problems with the highest potential to progress to the next stage.  

Ask your people to construct and frame compelling business cases and pitch their ideas in Dragon's Den style.

Each business case owner should predict the impact of solving the problem statement on customers, colleagues, shareholders, and suppliers.

By enabling the voices from all levels to be heard, you will empower cultural shifts to form, with colleagues becoming more confident in speaking up and presenting their suggestions as to where the organisation should focus its attention.

See if the fire catches: Bring together individuals with a variety of strengths to deconstruct customer experiences to find disruptive solutions to pain points

The marketplace has many examples of innovation sparked by a disruptive mindset and deconstructing customer experiences. Here are a few companies that have broken the industry mould:

  • Marks & Spencer: virtual touchscreen clothing rail that simulates real life clothing.
  • Kohl’s: digital interactive fitting room.
  • Tesla:  commercialised electric vehicles
  • Aldi: delivering good quality food for consistently low prices
  • Jaguar: personalised virtual experience enabling customers to build their own model.

Imagine if your people focused their attention on finding solutions to each of the 'How might we statements' and, just like the examples above, deconstructed today's experiences and provided solutions to pain points. Consider bringing colleagues with different strengths across multiple capabilities to ideate together, each using their own experiences and strengths to collaboratively identify pain points. It’s always wise to include front-line colleagues who are closest to the customer.

Do your safety checks: Before moving to pilot, minimise effort and cost by eliminating ideas with a limited chance of success.

Carrying out robust safety checks is an important step that many skip, leading to unnecessary scars.  To remove wasted effort and reduce unnecessary costs, identify ideas that have the maximum chance of success. Test technical feasibility, commercial viability and customer validation.  You might want to consider some of the following questions:

Stage 1 - Technical feasibility:

  • Can we produce the solution in-house?
  • Can a supplier create the solution on our behalf if we cannot make it in-house?

Stage 2 - Commercial viability:

  • Can we afford the upfront and ongoing costs associated with the solution?
  • Is the estimated ROI (Return on Investment) attractive?

Stage 3 - Customer validation:

  • Would my current or target customer buy into the proposed solution?
  • Does the sample customer base have any recommended tweaks?

Feed the flame: Select the right colleagues to act as change agents during the pilot phase

Take the ideas that successfully passed the safety checks through a compelling pilot process. Make sure your pilots represent your entire customer base, and that you consider location, demographics, seasonality, and diversity.

Once pilot stores have been selected, place great emphasis on selecting change agents to champion the change. Make sure you provide in-depth training and engage and inspire those individuals to embed the change and share constructive feedback.

Always remember to be clear on the vision, to communicate and support the transition process, to diarise time to listen and to celebrate success.

Once you get proof of concept, you will soon be ready to scale the solution at pace.

Enjoy the warmth and keep that fire burning: Start with the end in mind. What action can you take today?

Pause for one moment and imagine a world where your colleagues fuel the supply of innovation. Where your culture enables all levels to speak up and be heard, and where no idea is seen as silly. Imagine having too many good ideas rather than too few. How different would this world be?

Now imagine your front-line colleagues acting as change agents actively making change happen and providing constructive feedback, before making it their mission to make change stick.

Think about your organisation today and how different that may or may not be. What steps might you take to move you in the right direction?

Strike a match. Light that fire. Enable your people to unlock their innovative potential.

About the authors

Nigel Lowe PA people and change expert

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