Going inside Innovation at John Lewis

Ever wanted to know what it’s like to work in innovation at one of the world’s largest companies? Our Inside Innovation series aims to do just that. This month we’re looking at innovation at John Lewis after we were lucky enough to hear from the firm’s Innovation Manager at a London and Partners event.

Our speaker was John Vary. John heads ups the John Lewis skunkworks, ‘Room Y’, where he oversees innovation projects focused on multi-sensory experiences. In his time at John Lewis, John has worked on everything from a chatbot to help customers find Valentine’s Day gifts to the firm’s in-store smart home experience. So what are his tips for innovation?

Look for the right skills

When recruiting, John says that 4 skills are essential within his team and for innovation roles more broadly:

  • Curiosity That quest to leave no stone unturned when solving a problem.
  • Fearless Why? Because the ability to challenge others as well as the status quo is critical to any innovation role.
  • Creativity This is a skill which John thinks will become ever more important across a whole range of disciplines, not just within the innovation space.
  • Empathy It’s not enough to be able to think big. You have to be able to win hearts and minds to obtain that crucial buy-in from across the business.

Start building

In addition to having these soft skills, John’s team is also fully self-sufficient. Made up of engineers, designers and developers with access to everything from a 3D printer to laser cutters, the team is able to able to turn ideas into reality. Fast.

This ability to rapidly prototype is useful for innovation teams like John’s as it enables them to create a minimal viable product (MVP) to test an initial concept, either with internal stakeholders or, later down the line, with consumers.

John gave a brilliant example of how MVPs had been instrumental in the development of Sofa Studio, a John Lewis initiative to help customers see what different combinations of sofa shapes and fabrics look like in store. John first used Sylvanian Families furniture to test the concept internally, before building more refined prototypes within Room Y.

Get the rest of the business involved

For any innovation project to succeed, you need to get others in the business to support you and develop the curiosity and fearlessness that John described as being so important.

So how do you go about doing this? John shared two success stories from John Lewis.

The first is the firm’s monthly “Innovation Kitchen”. This is a forum for suggesting and brainstorming new ideas that anyone in the business can attend. The emphasis here is on the quantity not quality of ideas to encourage employees to think fearlessly. These sessions don’t take place in a vacuum. External speakers working on innovation challenges in adjacent industries are often invited along to share their experiences and infuse the company with new thinking.

The second way John and his team have sought to engage the wider business is through a Google Plus community. This acts as a platform from which they can share interesting developments that they’ve seen, helping the team to broaden their reach internally and inspire colleagues to think differently.

No matter how you do it, initiatives that engage the rest of the business are a must for any innovation team.

This is the second in FreshMinds’ Inside Innovation Series. Want to hear how Diageo approach innovation? Take a read.