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Innovation through customer collaboration and feedback

Nordstrom is one of USA’s leading fashion specialty retailers and is a Fortune 500 company (2011 – ranked 254).  When I think of a fashion retail company, innovation isn’t the first thing that comes to mind.  So how does a large retail company like Nordstrom innovate?  Through the creation of a Lean Startup team, called Innovation Labs.  According to their website,

The Nordstrom Innovation Lab is a new, and growing, team. We act like a startup inside of a large company: we move through ideas quickly, using whichever technologies make sense. We also walk the agile walk: the lab is a collaborative workspace with stickies and note cards everywhere, and we follow agile engineering practices like pairing and test-driven development. On the customer-facing side, we use ideas from both lean manufacturing and lean startup, and test our experiments with customers using human-centered design strategies and tactics.

The below video is a brilliant case study on how the innovation lab uses Lean UX and human centered design to build an iPad application (to help customers select a sunglass) incrementally and getting customer feedback in real-time as they work, so they were never working on anything that wasn’t valued by the customer.  They were only doing things that was delivering value.

The innovation lab manager, JB Brown states:

Somebody will have an idea and we will find a way to prove that the idea will work.

We really don’t know what the features are yet.  We are going to use customer feedback as we go along in order to build the best thing.  Building a feature and testing it until we get to the point where we have something that is good enough.

Building the iPad application isn’t complex and the cycle time to develop a feature wouldn’t take long.  But what the innovation labs team has done is cut down the feedback loop times.  If this application was built in an office away from the customer, getting feedback would have been much longer.  And by getting feedback directly from the end users rather than a user proxy, they have reduced the risk of developing the wrong features.

The innovation lab uses a concept called ‘flash build’, a variation of a flash mob, where a software team shows up at a surprise location to build a minimal viable product application so they can get direct customer feedback in real-time.

It is awesome to see innovation and the use of lean and agile principles and practices in action within a large company.

I want to run an agile project

This is all too funny!  Whilst the video is intended to be humorous, the pain of the “Agile Guy” maybe all too familiar for some.  Agile changes many things we have become use to over many years – agile questions the status quo and challenges our muscle memory……..

Enlightened trial and error succeeds over the planning of the lone genius

“Enlightened trial and error succeeds over the planning of the lone genius”

is a quote from a great video demonstrating how teamwork and agile concepts at IDEO is used to successfully deliver innovation and solutions in a non-IT environment in just 5 days!

Some highlights which I thought were pertinent to agile:

  • The people are not experts at any given area.  They innovate by using and applying the process.
  • The person leading the team is the leader because he is good with groups, not because of seniority.
  • There are no titles, no permanent (role) assignments – everyone is a generalist but brings specific skills.
  • Everyone communicates and share what they learn.
  • Iterative development with showcases/demonstrations of prototypes to get feedback for the next iteration of the product.
  • Some of IDEO’s mantra for innovation:
    • One conversation at a time
    • Stay focused on topic
    • Encourage wild ideas
    • Defer judgment
    • Build on the ideas of others
    • No criticisms (this is self moderated)
  • Time-boxing, to prevent the process from going on for ever (Parkinson’s Law and Pareto Principle comes to mind).
  • Self-organization.
  • Team judges what are the best ideas (team votes).
  • Fail often in order to succeed sooner (fail safe culture).
  • Having an open mind – think outside the box.
  • Belief that focused chaos can be constructive.
  • High use of visualization tools, story boards, information radiators.
  • Fresh ideas come faster in a fun place.
  • High level of collaboration.
  • Teamwork, teamwork, and more teamwork!


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