Forget About the Theory!
How Decathlon’s “Vision 2030 Initiative” takes collective envisioning to a whole other dimension
Meeting online for a chat with the Decathlon Vision 2030 Team is an informative and upbeat experience. We are keen to listen and key in to how they are applying Theory U to develop a Vision for Decathlon United — the multinational colossus founded by Michel Leclercq in 1976, and whom most people in the European market already know as the world leader in sports equipment retail. Decathlon headquarters are located just outside of Lille, France — where it all began — and the company currently counts 93,000 employees working in 1,660 stores in 57 different countries, making 1.3 billion products per year and amounting to a turnover of close to 12 billion euros.
Charlie Felgate, Vision Leader at Decathlon United since November 2018, is as easygoing and humorous as he is focused and driven: over the past months he has been actively communicating about the Vision Process through articles and talks. Their team spirit beams out strong, fresh and tangible as he and his colleagues Stéphanie Fortin and Audrey Hespel slip back and forth effortlessly between English and French, consulting with each other on how to word their answers, and playfully responding to our many questions.
Decathlon’s First Connection with Theory U
Our first question, naturally, is: how did it come to be that Decathlon is basing its future growth and expansion strategy on Theory U? As it turns out, the seeding of Theory U within the Decathlon environment goes back several years to 2015, when Stéphanie returned to work after her maternity leave. The innovation hub team that she was part of had been launching a huge project while she was away. Stéphanie was in exploration mode, and helped support the construction of the “Alive” team under the leadership of Vincent Ventenat, to enhance in-house innovation and open up the company ecosystem to new approaches and possibilities. What captured Stéphanie’s attention first was the title of Otto Scharmer’s book “Leading from the Emerging Future: From Ego-System to Eco-System Economies”. The “from ego to eco” part felt intriguing and uncannily relevant to her quest, so she discussed it with her leader, who was himself familiar with the book. Stéphanie is one who likes to dig deep, so after reading the book she then looked up the Presencing Institute, found out about the u.lab MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) and decided to join the September 2015 cycle.
From there it was but a step for the entire six-member strong innovation team to enroll in one of the in-person Presencing Foundation Program (PFP) trainings, which took take place in November 2016 in Oxford UK, and counted 70 participants from all parts of the world. In Stéphanie’s words: “Our intention was threefold: to train all together (also as a team-building exercise); to discover something different about ourselves; and to learn how to better listen to the world.”
Stéphanie reminisces: “After the training, what I remember most were two things. Firstly, my analytic engineer’s mind was completely baffled by the impact of the Social Presencing Theater practice. It was so powerful that I caught myself thinking: “Oh my God, where am I, and what just happened to me?” The other very valuable practice was the case clinic: “The conversation we experienced was much more powerful than the ones we usually held, which entail giving feedback and advice. It was quite astounding just how much we could capture for one another, especially without creating debate or reacting to what people were saying, but just by offering our feelings, our words, our drawings, our postures or our body sculptures; this is something that’s remained with me very deeply from the training.”
Audrey chimes in: “ I think it was mostly about the listening to the inside part of ourselves, the observing. When we returned home, one of us asked: ‘Who do you feel most connected to now?’ We all answered in unison: “To myself!”
Charlie, for his part, had been on a personal journey of sorts already since 2012, seeking ways to lead a more impactful life. Charlie’s teammates told him: “If you’re going to hold the Vision Process for Decathlon, you really need to do Theory U.” Charlie recounts: “I didn’t even ask why, because I trust them. So I just went.” The aspect of Theory U that really spoke to him was the approach to “feeling the future from the present.” He observes: “I’d never really thought about that before: I didn’t care about yesterday, and don’t much care about today — well at least I used not to. I was always very focused on the future and never gave consideration to feeling the emerging future from the present. I’m trying to be more and more present. And it’s really working for me.”
Metamorphosis of a Mammoth: how to Reverse Success-Induced Inertia?
Next, we wondered: how did the Decathlon Innovation team translate these specific experiences and personal breakthroughs into a process and language that would be relatable to the rest of the company?
Says Charlie: “I think it’s worth saying a couple of things. Decathlon is a very big retail company, like Walmart or Carrefour, and traditionally these are environments where teams talk about performance, excellence, operations, profit. Ideas around “feeling into the future” are just not the sort of things that are talked about very often. So this all started with a very small group here.”
Although local, decentralised decision-making — what they call the principle of subsidiarity, where decisions are made as close as possible to their consequences — was originally embedded in the company DNA, everything became very centralised during its years of expansion from 2000 to 2015 (when Decathlon tripled its turnover and international presence): decisions were made from the top. Charlie nonetheless acknowledges: “You know, we must recognise that without that, we probably wouldn’t be here today.”
Charlie goes on to describe what he calls the “next brick” of the story: when a new CEO came into the company in early 2015 with an “entreprise libérée” posture (inspired by Frédéric Laloux’s vision around reinventing organisations and Isaac Getz’s work), they launched what ultimately turned out to be an only partly-successful vision initiative. It was a bottom-up exercise that harnessed the collective intelligence of 37,000 participants and spawned a couple of strategic CSR (corporate social responsibility) orientations. But— “there’s always a “but”, isn’t there?” chuckles Charlie — in reality, the company is run by about 2,000 people who are in charge of the “business units”, and who are managed on their performance.
“This is the biggest problem at Decathlon: our business works really well. And if your business works really well, then why change it?”
Charlie expands on the concept: “Sometimes, I’d love to be Toys ‘R Us or Lego: because when you’re about to die, that’s when you make the most systemic and relevant change. Which isn’t the case with our company. So the vision exercise in 2016 actually became quite “hollow”, if you like. We had this beautiful thing on the wall, collective intelligence, 37,000 people who had said “let’s go this way”, and actually, nobody really moved! Nobody really moved.”
The Innovative Minority: Turning the Learnings into a New Company Culture
Audrey, Charlie and Stéphanie admit to being “a little bit of a minority within the company”, and they’re well aware of that. All in all, not more than 1% of the company is working on exploration. “So we talk about it all the time: every time there’s a leaders’ meeting, we talk about the need for change, it’s this cliché: ‘We must change.’ We talk about the need for digital transformation, we’re just starting to catch up on the ecological curve. At the end of the day, the problem’s not resources and it’s not ideas: we make money and we’ve got brilliant ideas, we’ve got brilliant people in our company, we really have. We spend so much time with them and they’re awesome. But… is anyone actually making ‘the step that counts’ yet?
So this is where Theory U comes into play for them. However — and this is where it gets truly interesting for us — if you look at their documentation, their videos, Charlie and his team very rarely talk about Theory U.
Charlie explains: “The Decathlon people are “young, they’re vibrant, they’re funky, and theory?… Forget it!” They know intuitively that they have to get their people to live something. So, as Charlie mischievously describes it, “we wrap it up in a Decathlon wrapping, which we call ‘Decathlon Vision 2030’” — his teammates are now outright laughing — “and we know that once people get on board, they get it. It’s really working.”
We ask them to share more in detail how they go about modifying the language, and adapting the practices of Theory U to get buy in. They retain the various phases (One Process, Five Movements) of the U— co-initiating, co-sensing, presencing, co-creating, co-evolving — but rename them, with words that the non-initiated can more easily relate to: so “co-initiating” translates into “co-inspiration”, “co-sensing” is reworded as “co-exploration”, “presencing” is called “personal writing”, and so forth.
Infusing Inspiration: Personal Ownership and Agency
The underlying philosophy at Decathlon is that its employees are given the opportunity to play an active role in shaping their own future — within the company and beyond. “That’s in fact our story”, affirms Charlie. “So the way we get them on board is by asking them: ‘What world do you want to live in?’ and telling them: ‘You are an actor of your future. This is an opportunity, it’s a present: take it from us, make the most of it, and enjoy it.’”
We are curious about how they got the top management on board with this. It turns out that Charlie works directly with the CEO, Michel Aballea, and that they are co-leaders of the vision. The trust and alignment between them is complete, so Charlie in fact has carte blanche to take initiative on whatever is needed to make the Vision Process work.
Stéphanie explains that they have recently opened up the process completely, to everyone. “Right now, we don’t even talk about Decathlon. We talk more in general. What would you like to see emerge? What are your concerns? We don’t push Decathlon, or the position of Decathlon in the future: it’s more personal. Decathlon is not yet the subject. The focus is on the evolving of the world: how do you picture it, and what do you think is important?” In order to carry forth this exploration they have created a network of Vision Relays all around the world, whom they train, and who then apply the methods and the tools to their context, locally.
They have done this in 15 cities so far. “It works in every culture — but”, they hasten to add, “the conditions need to be right, obviously.” We ask them to elaborate more on these conditions, and the factors named are: trusting the people, trusting the process, ensuring that each person has a voice, paying attention to listening, locating the event in a non-Decathlon environment, democratising contributions using a digital platform so that “everyone has the same power” — even creating space for silence and withdrawal. To illustrate this last point, Charlie recounts: “There was a very warm moment when I was in Ghana. There was a girl from South Africa who didn’t say anything at all. Today, she is one of the biggest contributors to the Vision. She needed time to digest the process. She felt that she had that space of safety and comfort to not say anything: that’s quite important. We want people to feel that they can go as far as they want — or not.”
Reaching Outwards and Opening Up
We are curious to know more about how the Vision Relay trainings unfold, and inquire about the duration of the physical meet-ups. These typically last one day and a half. They usually keep the afternoon open, for agility and questions, and finish around 2pm at the latest. At that stage, the newly formed Vision Relay people are already thinking about how they can get organised in their own countries. It has so far worked in every country.
What shifts have happened since January 2016 and how do they know that they are getting to where they want to go? One of the biggest changes since 2016 is the possibility for external people to join in the vision shaping. Through social media, the opening has been communicated far and wide. One of the traditional Decathlon deliverables every 2 or 3 years had been to produce a book of macro trends for the world, where people from inside the company could write and share about their own vision. Then in 2018 they took the gamble to shift from “trying to represent the world”, to opening up the creative writing and envisioning process expanding it to a much wider ecosystem, to see what could emerge from that. They embarked upon a journey where they shared their intention, invited VIPs (volontaire, inspiré, partageant — voluntary, inspired, sharing people) to “just come over and start a journey together, exploring how would you like to see things change.” They went through different stages involving both people internal to the company, and local people from outside the company, building up an open-source sharing system to transition into the next future vision. As Stéphanie sums it up — alluding to the company’s signature chromatic branding: “We can’t “stay blue! The world, the earth is mainly blue, but the world is not Decathlon, so how do we change that, the posture, and our answers, and our impact, all together?”
Charlie adds: “When you open to all, not only are you bringing transparency — you can’t bullshit anymore — there it is: right there, in front of you. But also, you stop looking at it from the same point of view, in fact you want other people to look at it for you.”
“And this is a huge difference between the two vision exercises and yet, we have to be a little bit careful in the way that we communicate that. We want people to feel it and live it, rather than buy in about the why. That’s so important. So we keep a lot of the theory to ourselves.”
Towards New Structures and New Behaviours
Things are shifting in how people perceive the business place, its role towards the world, and society itself. We ask the Decathlon team whether they are observing structures or new behaviours ensuing from that? For instance, different evaluation and reward systems? New store practices? Innovative products?
Charlie pauses to reflect. He reckons the answer is: not quite yet. “We have a vision, and from that vision will come the strategies.” But there is still some resistance to overcome. He elaborates on the example of collaboration versus competition. “Why do we need to work with our competitors? Because we have all got the same problem when it comes to water, let’s say. Water scarcity is a global problem and we need to tackle it with our competitors, and yet we’re still not doing it. I’ve always said that the vision exercise has the excuse and the duty to do things differently.” Something has indeed started to shift since the moment that Decathlon employees realised they have the “permission” to think about a future with their customers, and weave in things they had always dreamt of doing, but never got round to actualising. “So we hope — and believe — that structures will change. Things have already been happening, we’re not just six: we’re probably a few hundred, and we do push the boundaries of the organisation in the traditional sense.”
Stéphanie adds: “We find echoes even within the company, something people are maybe not mentioning, but there are things coming up. I can’t say that we are seeing a change right now, but we can talk about things in an easier and more open way than before.” So although the innovation team are admittedly all dreaming of more investment in exploration, the current model of finance is still one of exploitation, to do with the running of stores. “And fortunately they do work, and that creates the money to pay us. But we see the need for an evolution in that structure which will eventually come, from whatever we decide in this vision that we have collectively written: so it’s a big step, to see what’s going to come next.”
Charlie believes that the power of the vision will work towards shaping strategies that will ultimately impact and shift structures. He offers an example from their last vision, where the cause was called “be where we are needed”. It addressed the importance of having a social impact, locally. He recounts: “It’s not something we ever did before. Our expansion strategy used to be just ‘open open open, be present, take a foothold in the market’, but once we wrote this intention to ‘be where we are needed’, it completely reorientated our expansion strategy. We were about to open in Cape Town, and we stopped! That’s not where we were needed: we were needed in Johannesburg, so everyone went to Johannesburg.”
Ghana, for instance, was never on the cards in the previous regime. That again changed with the “being where we are needed” intention. So Decathlon went to Ghana, only to discover that “you can’t sell diving masks to people who don’t know how to swim”, or basketball gear to a population with no playing courts. This suddenly took the initiative into uncharted territory, way beyond retail and sales, into the realm of societal and infrastructural impact: building, teaching. “This really gave birth to a massive social impact which is now becoming a trend throughout the company, and we’re starting to talk about societal impact, like it’s always been there — but it hasn’t.”
Charlie concludes: “So the power of the vision will then orientate strategies, and therefore organisation: it comes in that order, and we really hope that it is going to influence the business model as well. Because I don’t have a problem with selling 1.3 billion products, as long as every single one of them is eco-designed — which is not the case today. Only 4.5% of products are eco-designed.”
What is the impact on their employees? “The people who get involved in this, they really love it, and we don’t do it for what we call ‘employee brand’. But people will stay for this sort of thing, people will stay with us if they believe that they can play a role, they can have their say, because they know that in other companies it doesn’t really work like that.”
Asking the Right Questions
If this was all about Decathlon, it wouldn’t work. For the first time in 44 years the question is no longer: “what will a Decathlon store be in 10 years?” Charlie is emphatic: “I don’t care! We don’t care! And we see that, in fact, nobody really cares. Really. The questions are ‘what will the world be in 10 years, what do YOU want to live in 10 years — for you yourself, your family, your kids, and then: what role can WE play in that world that YOU want to live? And this opens up a reason to participate.”
We are curious to know how in 2030 Audrey, Charlie and Stéphanie will be able to assess what has shifted, and how they think they will be able to measure that? Quantitatively or qualitatively? There is a long reflective pause, and then Charlie says: “By the fact that we will exist.” There is some laughter, and then he adds, with a grave expression: “If we don’t change, we, as Decathlon (selling stuff in a store), die.” He elaborates further: “If we’re really obsessed about making sport accessible, what we have to do is to get people to play sport, and you don’t have to go through a store to do that, there’s a million different ways to do that. And this is what we have trouble with today: getting away from that.”
They hold the firm conviction that any multinational of their size that doesn’t reply to one or more of the problems of the 17 SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) will not survive beyond 2030. “So we’ve got to get on this curve, we have to transform, and our way is to go through the U. Because it’s the sum of 100,000 people wanting to make that change that will make the difference.”
In closing, Charlie remarks: “And something that we haven’t said, but is definitely worth mentioning: we don’t believe that we have all the answers. We are far from thinking that we’ve figured this out and it’s really test and learn. Everything we do, we’ve never done before. Our IT partners are pulling their hair out because they’ve never done this before, and that’s cool, we’re quite happy with that. But what we want to do, at the end of all this, is make everything available. If our methods and tools are useful, to you or to anyone, we’re going to make that available, we’ll make a book, we’ll make a film, we’ll go on a tour, we’ll go on the road, we’ll do keynotes, because we believe that’s all a part of it. And that’s staying true to the spirit of the vision, which is: open to all.”