So you're a retailer and you want to plant the seeds of innovation at your company. Where do you get started? Here are 5 suggestions:
1. Find sources of inspiration
You and your team need to be exposed to many ideas from lots of different industries. Its unlikely a perfect solution to a problem will drop in your lap -- more likely you'll see how someone in a similar industry solved a similar problem, and you'll be inspired to do the rest. I follow general technology sites like Mashable, TechCrunch, Ars Technica, The Verge, ReadWrite, and MIT Tech Review and look for applicability to retail.
You can also get a good understanding where technology is going by reviewing ARTS blueprints, analyst briefings, and industry publications like Retail TouchPoints, RIS News, Chainstore Age, Retail Wire, and Internet Retailer to name a few. These organizations do a good job of staying current with the happenings of both retailers and vendors in the industry.
Its also important to cultivate ideas within your own organization. At Oracle Retail, we have a yearly science fair in which employees form teams and are given time to build out ideas and experiment. I've also been invited to retailers' "vendor innovation weeks" where various vendors are invited to pitch ideas.
2. Set aside resources to experiment
Many retailers have decided to acquire a start-up to form an internal lab where engineers are free to experiment with new ideas. Others create a rotation of engineers through lab assignments to spread wealth. Whether there are dedicated or ad-hoc resources, the important thing is always be testing new ideas.
3. Establish partnerships
Vendors, especially start-ups, want to partner with retailers to test ideas. Its important to cultivate partnerships with regular meetings and occasional proof-of-concepts. You can get access to multiple start-ups by staying in touch with venture companies, or attending conferences.
4. Streamline processes
Its easy enough to plant the seed, but existing processes are sure to strangle any seedling. Some amount of capacity needs to be set aside to cultivate ideas when they spring up. Forcing someone to create a huge marketing pitch and wait six months for hardware will not advance the cause. Make it easy to start, pivot, and if necessary, fail fast.
5. "Non-stupid vs. brilliant"
I was once discussing innovation with Jerry Rightmer in a bar in San Francisco when he said something that has stuck with me. Paraphrasing, he said it wasn't necessary to have a brilliant idea, only a non-stupid one. If the idea has any merit, then follow the thread and see where it leads. From one idea, many others may sprout with a little investment. Failed projects are full of valuable learnings and will likely lead to better ideas in the future.