Thursday, 12 May 2011

Populising Innovation...

How B&Q's CEO made innovation a crusading total company activity

I recently met with Ian Cheshire, CEO of Kingfisher.  Now divested of electrical retailers Comet and Darty the group is free to focus on the home improvement market with DIY stores (B&Q and Castorama) in UK, France and fast growing markets of Poland, Turkey, Russia and China.  Kingfisher is a £10bn, 65,000 person powerhouse.  Since taking over the reigns Ian has transformed the group from supertanker to speedboat.

I wanted to chew the innovation cud with Ian; what’s driving innovation in global retailing today?  Here are five innovation gems from our conversation. 

1.  Innovate around one big customer focused idea: The key is not to overcomplicate innovation, not to put it on a pedestal as a complex management science.  Selling 45,000 products in more than a thousand ‘big barn’ stores could be a recipe for innovation chaos.  Without a central organizing idea to help busy execs say yes or no to new ideas innovation could splinter out of control.  So at Kingfisher innovation is dedicated to ‘making life easier’ for their customers’ DIY challenges.  For example wallpaper paste you apply to the wall and not the paper.  Doh!  What a simple but great idea.  (BTW I am scarred by memories of my mother wallpapering our house in the 1970 when I was young, is this just me?).  ‘Making life easier’ is a single lens that cleverly combines the brand promise with an innovation standard and it’s easy for staff and customers to understand.  So much so that Ian and his team have been able to explain their innovation 'lens' to both these groups so that now staff and customers bring more ideas than they can cope with – and most are strategically bang on target.  The key is to be able to communicate a simple and wholesome purpose behind innovation.

2.  Make the reason to innovate clear: Within the organization Ian has found a way to conceptualize the ‘business reason for innovation’.   This is often misunderstood in business, we take it as granted that innovation is a good thing, a legitimate business activity.   That is until we gulp down our coffee as we figure out the real opportunity cost of a serious innovation investment program.  Having a top team align around the need and the role for innovation is critical and Kingfisher have realized this.  Ian coined the concept of ‘unlocking the latent spending power’ of Kingfishers customers.  This is the money we all have but don’t spend because frankly we don’t see the need.  It’s a concept that’s easy to grasp – I can visualize all those notes in customers wallets right now – the ones that don’t come out and get spent in someone else’s store.  They are real and they exist, in the flat economies of Western Europe unlocking them is the only way to grow.  Turning decking into low cost fencing, developing fence sprays rather than paints, classes that encourage customers to ‘pimp my shed’ and loos that incorporate hand basins for mini flats - these are all innovations that have been driven by the simple belief that there’s more market to go for, its fun to unlock spending power and shameful if you don’t.   Ian called this ‘provoking the future’. 

3.  Fast Iteration:  Ian has a great story about how innovation only works if you can be super flexible, almost throw away in your development.  He pulled Screwfix products into B&Q and called it Tradepoint, professional decorators and builders kept asking if things were in stock so he removed the walls around the stock area.  Sales shot up as builders reported confidence with the scale of the operation.  This is ‘fast iteration’ par excellence.   Ian neatly describes this as "the key to innovation is 'landing at speed'".

4.  Innovation for all:  Innovation isn’t just for the marketing or sales team, Ian spoke proudly of his team of legal and procurement team that have worked with a Mid East tile manufacturer who has developed an amazing printing process.  Kingfisher have first bite on all this guy’s innovation.  He says that with innovative suppliers he's worked hard to 'plug n the fire hose of commercialisation'.   Makes me think of how P&G pitch their supplier led innovation story and the same with Cisco’s 'acquirer of choice' strategy.

5.  As CEO - show you care about innovation:  Finally my favourite story:  Ian is keen to emphasis how critical that he and the Exco are seen to be interested in their products not their strategy.  He saw the Cool Wall on the UK’s irreverent car show Top Gear and stole the idea for his best selling products.  He put the Cool Wall outside his office and soon suppliers were fighting to have their product on it.  Simple, easy, visual and cheap.  

Five great innovation gems and as with all great innovation stories they make perfect sense to the onlooker and the historian.  But making things this plain-speakingly simple and this let-me-have-a-go popular in a hugely complex environment is a real skill.  I am sure Ian would want me to point out that his team and especially Group Innovation Director Andy Wiggins have worked hard to make all this happen as well.