Walmart’s CIO believes in failing fast

Clay Johnson, Walmart’s executive vice president and CIO isn’t afraid of failing. This was the key insight Clay Johnson gained from a conversation he had with Debbie Hauss (editor-in-chief, Retail touchPoints) at the Retail Innovation Conference this week in New York City.

Johnson stated, “I am one of those people who uses fail fast models.” Johnson said that the pace of change is so rapid. Leaders and peers within an organization must be able to accept that everyone will fail. It’s okay to fail at one of your 10 tasks.

Johnson stated that while you don’t want the books to be closed on the wrong things and it is important to let people try and learn from their mistakes, Johnson said. Johnson acknowledged that many companies may not be able to adopt a fail fast approach. It’s a culture shift.

This type of culture change is not easy for established companies like Walmart. Johnson stated that the fact that Walmart has acquired many digital-native startups in recent years shows that the idea of failing quickly is now “beginning to be infused into the company’s ecosystem.”

Johnson stated that Walmart acquired digital-native startups which have influenced Walmart’s culture, particularly around the notion of speed to innovate.

Johnson stated that although we bought different size startups, they all work around the same idea of speed and how quickly they can market, as well as how to operate within guidelines to get their innovation out there.

Johnson believes that Walmart’s most recent innovations, such as grocery delivery and a test where merchandise was delivered to customers’ homes, wouldn’t be possible without the culture shift after acquisitions.

He stated, “I don’t think we would’ve tried these things out” if they hadn’t bought the startups.

Johnson says that Walmart’s innovation team has been integrated with its business team. This is a significant organizational change. Johnson stated that the innovation team shouldn’t be seen as an independent entity. While it will find new technologies to test, it does not always solve the problem.

Johnson stated that the Israeli innovation and business teams visited 30 startups in just a few days. The startups all focused on technology such as artificial intelligence and email. Because these technologies are what everyone is talking about, but very few have actually implemented them effectively, he was enthusiastic about the experience.

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Johnson stated that Johnson was able to feel the reality of what you see on paper. “So many Israeli companies are focused on these types of technologies.” Some were fantastic, some not. However, Israel is producing some amazing software.

How does Walmart choose which new technologies to test and how do they decide? Johnson stated that the group narrowed down to six but would likely end up with three.

Johnson stated that all 30 of them look great when first seen. But, you need to consider if you have the time and inclination to try them all. Johnson said that the team also hosts these meetings in Silicon Valley, Austin, Texas.

Johnson also mentioned a key practice in hiring: “The leaders that I look for are not from retail,” he stated. It’s important that you find people who think outside the box. You may not be able to see the forest through the trees if you live in it.


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It’s easy for retail giants like Toys”R”Us and Kmart to believe that the retail industry is at a tipping point . As the dawning of the “retail apocalypse,” a number of brick-and-mortar stores are having trouble keeping up with mobile commerce. Businesses don’t need to fear the impact of industry changes. This retail doomsday that everyone is predicting is actually a development. Retailers now have a chance to improve their execution strategies and take advantage of the technological advances that the industry has made.

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Although hard numbers and quantitative insights are often the first thing people associate with “data collection”, it is important to remember that qualitative data, most notably photos, can be just as powerful. The analysis and collection of photos of signs and displays can provide context and add value to the quantitative data. Brand managers can encourage accountability, verify promotion execution, and monitor compliance with safety and health standards by keeping a photo database. Including photos in your data collection will allow you to align marketing collateral across all locations and make spending decisions that increase both customer loyalty and revenue.

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