I normally try to post an article at least once a month however work has been tedious in May. This month’s blog post is an interview with Colin Duff, formerly the digital innovation lead at Argos. Argos is the UK’s largest high street retailer online with 430 million visits annually.
Me — Who is Colin Duff? and How would you describe your previous role at Argos?
Colin — I led the Digital Innovation team at Argos which is responsible for leveraging new technologies and digital tools to drive growth and transform the customer experience across all channels. Put more simply the team is responsible for taking the fight back to Amazon, John Lewis, et al. to ensure Argos remains relevant.
As digital is such a hotbed of innovation, generating ideas is the easy bit. The real skill in my previous role was in determining which ideas have the potential to deliver real commercial impact versus those which are interesting novelties. For example in-store virtual reality experiences falls under the latter. Yes it would be really cool (I love it), but for a multitude of commercial, technical and operational reasons currently it’s unlikely to scale beyond a few flagship stores, hence it fails the impact test.
Innovation has changed — it used to be about developing new products and services, now there is so much more — the culture of an organisation, the balance between execution and transformation and the unprecedented challenges. Could you give me your take on what is different about innovation now compared to say couple years ago?
Colin — The digital and physical worlds have been blurring for a while, but they’re finally becoming inseparable. Consumers expect a seamless journey across channels and are becoming increasingly impatient and intolerant of even the slightest points of friction.
That’s why the two of the biggest innovations we launched at Argos last year were both to improve the physical CX for digital shoppers. The first was Fast-track collection, where we guaranteed customers who had paid online, they could get their item in-store within 60 seconds; thus eliminating queuing. (53% of Argos sales start online, but 90% are still collected in-store). The second big innovation was Fast-track delivery, the UK’s first nationwide same day delivery service. And again, even though the proposition was a breakthrough, consumer expectations were still sky high. So we launched it with four different delivery slots and included Sundays.
Did the innovation approach at Argos allow for failure? Is there any pressure from non-technical stakeholders for instant results?
Colin — Failure is fine, so long as it’s smart failure; i.e. we’ve captured valuable and robust learnings for the minimum investment possible. Actually, the tougher challenge with digital innovation — where performance data is immediately available — is stopping stakeholders from concluding which initiatives have failed and shutting them down prematurely. Often it takes one or two iterations of the innovation to get it working and it’s important to get agreement for these in advance of the trial.
What are the key characteristics of good people in the innovation space? What do you look for and value most in people who work with you and around you?
Colin — The best innovators at Argos are people who can overcome obstacles rapidly. For example we wanted to trial adding an ‘Assist Me’ button to the in-store tablets. But the development team told us it’d take several months owing to their bulging backlog. So we used physical buttons which sent texts instead as an MVP (see image below). The trial proved the case and got the development work bumped up the priority list.
What’s your evaluation process like? Do you, for example, use crowdsourcing at all internally or externally or do you rely more on expert judgement?
Colin — The evaluation process at Agros started with two quick initial filters. Firstly the innovation needed to be consumer facing and capable of generating material value within three years. (Equivalent to £10M+ in incremental revenue or a significant CX improvement). It’s surprising how many innovations fail this first filter. For example last year I rejected an idea to develop an iWatch app because it was too niche (i.e. few consumers have watches yet). Secondly it needs to fall under one of the three innovation platforms. Otherwise it’s unlikely to be prioritised. Although this doesn’t mean that the idea was killed, we’ll often pass it to another team for them to explore.
We would then run a quick and dirty feasibility assessment through consumer, commercial and technical lenses. For example we’ll go into a store and ask customers what they think about it and speak with colleagues from relevant areas. Ideas that will require us to make changes to our backend systems, we scrutinise these ones more closely as we know the hurdle rate will be higher.
Finally, we would brainstorm what an MVP could look like and run a quick experiment — an example of that is we may exclusively promote a new feature via email which directs consumers to a microsite which is fulfilled manually. This enables us to test demand without having to invest the time and effort with systems integration.
Thank you so much for your time, is there any words of advice that you would give to other innovation leaders?
Colin — Don’t impose conventional constraints in digital environments. Traditional enterprises may be limited to a handful of innovations each year. But there’s no reason digitally orientated ones can’t do dozens through smart partnering (especially with start-ups).