When it comes to naming a British business with a strong culture, retailer John Lewis will almost certainly come to mind. The group’s co-ownership model, which makes all employees partners in the business, has been in place since the retailer was founded more than 150 years ago and is well-documented, well-respected, and widely discussed.
Such a deeply rooted culture could well lead to entrenched views and an organisational roadblock when it comes to innovation. But as John Lewis transforms from a traditional bricks-and-mortar retailer into a multichannel one, it has organised itself to encourage innovation and change.
John Vary joined John Lewis in early 2014 to take up the new role of innovation manager, having previously worked at luxury brand Burberry. Tasked with creating an internal team to drive innovation into the business, his focus has been on people and enabling the partners. He recently explained his approach to CMO.com, and I began by asking him to describe the aims and ambitions of the innovation team.
Vary: When I joined, it was a blank canvas, but I was really passionate to create a space and a team that was enabled to think differently. We have a space called Room Y, which is an internal skunkworks where we build things from scratch.
We break it down into three areas: experimentation, futures, and people. Experimentation is building things you can’t buy off the shelf; and futures is looking at technologies such as voice, machine learning, and AI or big-picture trends such as transhumanism and exploring how that might work into the business.
The third part is people, and that’s very much what we’ve focused on. The ambition is to get people to change the way they think and to keep the way we, and the business, think open. This means making innovation almost business as usual so that it’s part of everyone’s job description. That might rule me out of a job title, but that’s a really important part.
If we look at the future, not just in retail, you’re going to need people who have complex problem-solving skills and emotional intelligence. This is not about technology, this is about people coming up with ideas to solve real problems and provide value. For me, that is innovation.
CMO.com: What skills did you need to bring into the business?
Vary: We’re just a small team of three, so when building the team, the idea was to have people who could really look at a problem, rather than just the technology. We brought in a designer and an engineer with backgrounds in design thinking who were able to focus on wholly human-centred design, but also who were able to go to the business and help pitch ideas that didn’t exist yet and take people on that journey.
You also need to be thick-skinned, because much of the work we do doesn’t go anywhere. You need to understand that’s OK because failure for us, as a team, is actually success for the business because we can build new ideas from that.
The evangelism part of talking about what we do within the business is also important, because we’re trying to change retail and the way people shop. Internally, we wanted to create an opportunity for people to come and express themselves, and give them that strength.
CMO.com: How do you ensure the innovation team remains focused on people rather than being swayed by the technology?
Vary: That could be a big problem, and that’s why I wanted to introduce design thinking to the way that we work, because it’s all about value, not about technology. It’s not about anything material but the very first step and understanding the user—empathising with that user and then defining a problem statement.
If you have that throughout the process, then you can change direction if your problem statement changes. And only at the end, through constant development, do you start to explore technology. But that’s only once you’ve created that value proposition. Otherwise you end up with a products-driven process rather than a needs-driven process.
We’ll all have more success as businesses if we create products through design-thinking rather than just using technologies that are available now but that haven’t been created to solve a real problem.
CMO.com: What’s an example of the type of product your team has developed?
Vary: We created The Interactive Sofa Studio. John Lewis’s home department has an offer of “Any Shape, Any Fabric.” When in store, customers can look through 80 cards, each with a sofa shape on the front, and then through over 200 physical fabric swatches. Then they go to a terminal to look these up to either visualise what the sofa would look like or to order it.
Customers were engaging with it because it was a successful proposition, but we felt there was something missing. During our research, we identified there was too much for customers to do—there was a card, a fabric, and then a terminal, which wasn’t very attractive. So we did idea generation around how the customer could play with real shapes instead of cards and create a prototype using 3-D printed sofa shapes, real fabrics, and RFID tags. When placed together on a table, these were recognised, and the sofa was built on the screen in front of you.
It was a surprising and delightful experience that was completely humanised—no keyboard, no mouse, and no internet connection—just a tool refining the proposition to make a beautiful experience. It cost about £1,500 to make the prototype, so there was no risk. In the 10 weeks it was in store, we had a pretty significant lift in enquiries around additional sofa styles. Without the in-store partners, that wouldn’t have been possible. It was an additional tool for them to go and use, and we’re now iterating it for the next phase.
CMO.com: What’s the cultural challenge for you when introducing new ideas into a store environment and into the business? And how do you get the partners to buy into what you’re doing?
Vary: For any business, it’s around attitudes to adoption and making people feel they own it. We’ve always involved the people in the store from the very first stage, by saying we have an idea and asking if they want to be a part of the research and how we create this.
We’re fortunate in that the John Lewis model is co-ownership, so there’s already a real sense of ownership. That comes through in two ways: store partners are on the front line and see all of the behaviours, expectations, and things that are going wrong. They’re also not afraid to feed back and challenge, critically, if something won’t work. Without their involvement, it’s probably going to be missing the problem that we want to solve. So that helps to avoid the resentment of something just turning up.
And then you have the fear from the person delivering that in the store of what the partners will think. But if you’ve brought everyone along on the journey from the beginning, you never have that fear.
CMO.com: What’s the process for encouraging partners to share their ideas in the first place?
Vary: One of the first things I did, even before the physical lab, was to create an innovation kitchen—taking over the town hall meeting at the John Lewis Victoria offices every month, providing pizzas, and inviting anyone from the business to come along and share ideas, or not.
I wanted to break the fear people always have of judgment from their peers and get them to start thinking openly and creatively as a collective experiment.
External speakers also came in to stimulate excitement and to show this as an opportunity for people to express themselves. And then I went around to different stores doing “innovation kitchens” around problems partners are seeing in store and how they could solve them.
In the past, we’ve used the superhero method to look at how that would solve a problem and used ice-breakers to remove people’s fears and get them thinking outside the box, because people do think naturally within that conservative restraint where they think things are not feasible.
It’s about empowering them to go and be innovative. I think solving problems is probably what everyone should have in their job title. You know, just go and solve problems.