By allowing all associates at all levels in the company participate to build a culture of innovation, Walmart is able to drive change within retail according to Fareena Contractor, head of the Walmart Innovation Community. 

Contractor has been the head of the Innovation Community for nearly four years and she is also the senior manager responsible for technology implementation at Walmart Canada.

Founded in Canada, the Walmart Innovation Community helps build and nurture a culture of innovation where any associate no matter, what level they’re at, can participate in innovation. 

The community began with 20 associates and three years later it now consists of 1,600 associates in eight different countries. 

Speaking at the Online Retailer conference in Sydney last week, Contractor explained the retailer’s innovation culture is cultivated through three main pillars: exploration, empowerment and execution.

“Under exploration, it’s all about learning new things from our community, whether that’s internally or externally. We brought in over 60 speakers, founders of startups, industry leaders to come share with us what they’re doing and why it’s innovative. We hosted an innovation summit, we brought 30 companies from all around the world to showcase their products and services.

“The second is empowerment, we want to be able to provide the skill sets to our associates to be able to participate in innovation, as well as the opportunities. So we’ll host workshops, where you can learn coding in Excel, how do you build a good business case, influence leadership [and] tell a good story.

“We also launched a platform called fishing, similar to Shark Tank or Dragon’s Den in Canada, where you can pitch your ideas to our executive committee. This is our third year, and we’ve had those ideas they implemented within our business.

“The last pillar is execution. We also want to lead by example so we all partner with startups, or run internal experiments.”

Innovation Drivers

Speaking to attendees at the Online Retailer conference, Contractor explained how the retail giant considers proposals from vendors and start-ups. The most important thing, she said, is a clear focus on solving a real customer problem.

“Understand what is the underlying problem that you’re trying to solve. Is technology and that specific technology, the right one to solve that problem?”

Companies and start-ups that want to do business with Walmart must follow a standard question-by-question format when presenting information to the retailer.

Fareena Contractor, head of Walmart innovation community.

“The first one is what’s the problem that you’re trying to solve? The second is, what’s its impact? Why should I care about that problem? The third is how can you solve that problem? What are all the options? And lastly, why is that solution, the best solution to solve that problem? 

“Once you’ve convinced me of that, then let’s get into the numbers and figure out if it’s really valuable if there is some sort of ROI.”

 Contractor argues innovators should focus on the progress not perfection and, adhere to creating value early and often.

“You want to start delivering value early. And often. Like I said, our industry is changing so fast. This is the only way that we can ensure that we’re surviving.”

Contractor also noted the importance of being a leader in your organisation. 

“What you want to do is create a safe space for your associates to test their ideas, where they can make mistakes, and then learn from those mistakes. We have lots of examples in our teams where we’ve been able to realise a lot of monetary value from doing this.”

The key components of innovation culture

During her presentation, Contractor named the six key components that stood out for what made companies innovative when it came to culture. 

She said companies need to be mission driven, “As a leader, your role is to set the mission and vision and have people buy into that. A lot of people call that purpose.”

Brands also need to have freedom and responsibility. 

“Once you’ve set that vision, take a step back and allow our teams to be able to get to that destination, the way they choose to do that.”

Organisations need to have an open and honest culture that builds trust and they also need to celebrate learning from failure. 

She explains, “There’s a really big movement in Silicon Valley which is about celebrating failure. If you fail, that’s all right, as long as you’re learning something that you can take in the future and lead that leads to progress.”

Companies should be persistent and need to be constantly testing and evolving. “Never, especially in this industry, should you say okay, we’re successful, and what we’ve got here working, constantly test and evolve.”

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