Leading Transformation: How Lowe’s Drove Innovation in Retail

Retail Execution May 7, 2021

“It’s just about connecting people, and everything else takes care of itself. It’s really that simple.”

At NG Retail Digital Summit, retail changemakers explored the topic of leading transformation, specifically how to drive innovation in retail.

The landscape of retail is changing rapidly and companies must innovate and adapt to avoid becoming obsolete. But, bringing transformative innovations to market is not just about having the next big idea.

Kyle Nel, EVP, Uncommon Partners Lab Corporate Innovation & Former Exec Director & Founder Lowe’s Innovation Labs, started his journey as a behavioral scientist. Kyle was just really obsessed with how people and organizations can change. Initially, he went about his exploration from an academic perspective, studying how people make decisions. 

It was 2012, Obama had just been elected for a second term, hurricane Sandy had just devastated the northeast, Gangam Style was rocking the charts, and Kyle Nel went to work for Lowe’s Companies, Inc. 

Lowe’s is a large Fortune 40 home improvement company, and has made Fortune’s Top 50 list of the “World’s Most Admired Companies,”  Fast Company’s “Most Innovative Companies AR & VR,” as well as “50 Most Innovative Companies,” among many other awards across many other categories, from speciality retail to technological innovation. 

From exosuits for employees, augmented and virtual reality firmware, hardware, and software for project visualization,  the Lowe’s holoroom, the first autonomous robot in stores, to putting a 3D printer in space.

How does a massive retail organization, like Lowe’s, make such innovative waves in the retail industry? Well, Kyle says that “it really comes down to social theory.”

Here is Kyle’s unified theory that enables any organization, even industry laggers or massive corporations, to do big things and enact change:

Unified Theory 

Strategic Narrative

“All organizations need a strategic narrative. This is a big, cogent, understable, clear view of the future,” says Kyle. “A good example of this is the  classic Moon Shot initiative of Kennedy.” The west (specifically the United States), was so blindsided by Sputnik, and what followed, was Kennedy’s clear strategic narrative. 

“So Kennedy says that we are going to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade. He was very clear about who the protagonists were, what we were going to do, and in what time frame.”

Break Bottlenecks

“The next thing you’ve got to do is go break the bottlenecks in the organization to get that going,” says Kyle.  “Literally lay out point for point how you are going to get the big idea into machine to get it work.” 

“If your idea can’t get through your organization, it can’t get to the customer. The first customer-centric thing you can do is to break those bottlenecks and align your organization.”

Establish Future KPIs

The last thing you need to do is to develop new KPIs of the future. “One surefire way to kill something new is to use mature KPIs of success to track development,” Kyle says. “Different metrics help you to see the future in a different way.”

Storytelling for the Future

This framework is crucial for enacting change from the inside out. “I did all this fancy schamcy research with ecg headsets on different people and convinced them to make decisions, and track them over time to observe behavior,” says Kyle. And he discovered that ultimately, the only real mechanism that works across board is if it’s inside of a story.

“Incremental change happens through storytelling.”

That’s why Kyle set off to study great storytelling and found that the framework applies to a corporate world. He even hired science fiction writers and illustrators to explore what the future could look like, and how technologies could show up in the real world and how they’ll impact our employees, and therefore, our customers

“Humans are fundamentally obsessed with stories,” says Kyle, and we totally agree. Sure enough, how many times have you stayed up way too late because you couldn’t get enough of a show you’re binging, all  knowing full well that you have to get up early in the morning ?

That’s because “we crave and love stories.” Why wouldn’t this work in our organizations?

That’s how Lowe’s Innovation Labs turned a script about VR/AR to build faster intellectual property around this technology in home innovation and created overwhelmingly well-received shopping experiences that allows customers to visualize home improvements they wanted to make with the Lowe’s Holoroom. 

This technology impacts the ways that organizations can train their employees, even regarding initiatives surrounding diversity and inclusion, hard skills and soft skills training, how do you deal with customer, how to board meeting

“There are solutions to just about any problem that you have if you’re willing to combine things in ways that haven’t been combined before and apply things in ways that haven’t been applied before.”

In another important factor in leading change involved identifying key plates in your organization. Here are some of the skills that Kyle recommends organizations select for and reward:

Skills of a Transformative Team: 

  1. Negative capability- have comfort within uncertainty

“Everything is uncertain, and we as humans are good at stamping out things that are uncomfortable. But there are a few folks who are good at living in it. Find those folks in your organization, and protect them.” 

  1. Chaos pilots– create structure out of chaos

“Those people are usually the annoying ones at your company.” Those are folks that are critical to finding the broken elements of systems and processes. 

  1. Personal Transformation: have a narrative for leadership

At Zipline, this is our philosophy. It is crucial to nurture a personal narrative for how their personal work contributes into a greater narrative, translating to the greater work. 

We’ve all had those great experiences where you really know what you’re doing is laddering up to something bigger.”

Drive Purpose, Drive Change

Legend has it that, after Kennedy’s famous speech, he met a janitor in a NASA facility. When he asked the man what his jobs was, he responded “I’m putting a man on the moon.” 

We don’t know if this story is true, but we do know that we, as humans, are driven by purpose. So to drive change, we must make sure that our purpose and the purpose of our organization are aligned. 

Zipline was built to solve the unique challenges of communication in retail organizations. Reach out to learn more about how you can drive innovation in retail by aligning your entire team.