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NRF 2018: Companies should take “lab approach” to innovation, says former GE exec

Organisations should use a lab-type approach to test ideas and drive innovation, according to the former vice-chair of GE, Beth Comstock, speaking at At NRF 2018

Firms should adapt to the fast pace of change in the retail and technology industries by adopting a lab-based approach, according to former vice-chair of General Electric (GE), Beth Comstock.

The former executive of GE told the audience at the 2018 National Retail Federation Big Show (NRF) that being able to try out ideas before investing massive amounts of money into them is one of the best ways to move forward with new and innovative ideas.

“Every company needs a bit of a lab approach. You need to constantly be testing, learning and experimenting,” she said.

By implementing a team that’s set up to focus on one thing, retailers will be able to test new ideas before investing, allowing them to see whether the idea fits in with the rest of the business and would successfully scale.

As part of this flexible approach to innovation, Comstock suggested working with startups to help adopt a culture that is more easily able to try new ideas and embrace change.

“Transformation means you’re never done, and that’s something we need to get our head around,” said Comstock.

Beginning to incorporate new ideas into the business means getting to know disruptors in the industry, as well as being prepared to outsource or partner with people with a different outlook who can tackle some of the problems your company is unable to, according to Comstock.

She believes retail teams need to be made up of different thinkers to innovate and keep up with the pace of change in the tech and retail spaces.

One of the most talked about aspects of increasing diversity across all industries is around the benefits it brings in productivity and creativity, but there needs to be an emphasis on inclusion and culture to reap these benefits.

This includes adopting a culture with a “mindset that’s open to change” and tackling the fear to fail – startups have this unique approach to internal culture, which includes flexibility and agile methodologies to try different ideas and only adopt what works.

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Data is becoming of huge importance in the retail space to deliver a better customer experience, and this is something consumers are increasingly demanding as access to technology is building customer expectation.

Comstock said “volatility is the new normal” in a digital world, as more firms are forced to use data more efficiently as part of their operations – especially in the retail space.

“People are adaptable and they have different moods – so the better data you get, the more able you’ll be able to create that better experience,” she added.

The difficulty in knowing how to use data to develop a more modern customer experience varies across the industry, as more traditional retailers with legacy systems will have more heritage data to analyse and bigger challenges in reforming how the business works.

But, in many cases, fickle consumer behaviour has proven that no retailer can remain pureplay and meet customer expectations. “Being a digital-first company does not mean you know physical,” said Comstock.

The past few years have seen many digital retailers, such as Amazon, begin to adopt physical retail locations to match brick-and-mortar retailers attempting to make headway in e-commerce.

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