January 28th 2020

Creating an Experimentation Culture – Interview with Sarah Gillard

Creating an experimentation culture is a challenge for any organisation. In this interview, Sarah Gillard, People Strategy Manager for John Lewis Partnership, discusses their efforts to encourage experiments within the organisation, and on how the secret is in less top-down scenario planning, but in celebrating smaller, local area successes.

Sarah Gillard [00:00:09] We really looked at to begin with was what is holding people back from experimenting, because one of the real advantages is the John Lewis partnership, is that we have 80000 people who genuinely are owners and so are genuinely invested in thinking about the future of the business. So convincing them to think about the future isn't really the problem. Getting them to experiment with stuff and use what they see and create experiments was part of the challenge. And so we really looked at what are the conditions that people work in that prevent them from acting on what they see and using their own initiative. And we found that in many cases it was it was sort of perceived barriers. So because I think particularly in legacy organizations, you're starting from a decades of received wisdom and practice. And so there's a kind of, oh, you mustn't do that. You don't do that or that's not the done thing here. And so what you'd really have to try and find is tiny, tiny examples of where people have actually done something different and then really celebrate that.


And so it might be something like one of our partners in Southampton was really into male facial hair grooming. And he could see that this was a thing for his customers. But obviously, we didn't really have anything like that in our store. And so he just asked a local barber to come in and set up a bit of a facial hair grooming thing in the store. He didn't ask permission. He didn't check with anyone whether it was allowed. He just uses initiative. And, you know, in many areas of our business, there would have been. You're not allowed to do that. But of course, there's no rule saying that. And so it's just finding these tiny stories and then really, really celebrating them. And if you've got 80 thousand people doing that kind of thing, then all of those weak signals that are out there begin to surface and their stories become sort of apocryphal. And that really is what creates the energy and excitement around experimentation. It's not this big top down. Let's do massive scenario planning example. Sometimes we do that, but more often than not, it's it's these little examples are happening in local areas and then surfacing them. Yeah, well, like I said, a lot of it is about what holds people back. And if people do not feel comfortable and able to express themselves and able to exhibit curiosity and try stuff and learn things, then they're not going to experiment. No matter how much you say you have autonomy to experiment. And so we really have spent some time thinking about what makes people feel comfortable and included and able to use their initiative and get a barber in. And. And these are tiny changes which that there's no sort of quick fix. But over the course of time, you can see that they've really made a difference.

So, for instance, 15 years ago, everybody called each other by Mr. or Mrs.. And women weren't allowed to wear trousers on the shop floor on that kind of thing. And over time, that's really changed to lots of small and changed to the rules or whatever. And now people are wearing what they like. They wear trainers. They have visible tattoos. And it's that kind of stuff. People are being able to express themselves, which means that people feel more able to say, I have an idea and I want to try it. If you feel constrained by your shoe choice, then how on earth are you going to experiment with something like a business idea? So it feels almost sort of mundane and obvious to say it, but if you are able to create an environment, people feel that they are able to be themselves and express themselves, then you're far more likely to find that they are more comfortable to experiment with business ideas. I think I think being really aware that you are trying to work against the system and that the system will impose itself in all manner of ways, and often it's people doing what they think is a good job because historically that was their job to sort of maintain control and and apply the rules and so be really conscious that these are not bad people. These are people doing what historically has been valued. And you have to find ways of celebrating them, choosing a different path and not sort of diminishing what they used to do, but really celebrating areas where they have pushed the boundaries or done more exploratory things. And I think don't underestimate what a shift there is.

And for a lot of people and then I think another pitfall is not being really clear about the trade-offs because you can't have experimentation and consistency. And where historically you might have really favoured consistency. If you're not really clear that experimentation means you're going to have some inconsistent experiences. Then people will still try to optimize for consistency because that was the historic thing that you did. And so in all of these areas that there are sort of multiple trade-offs, you know, the personal versus the corporate or the individualistic vs. the standardized, the experimenting vs. the process wave or efficient way of doing things. So if you're not clear about the trade-offs, then people won't understand that it's OK to not prioritize the things that needs to be really important. So I think setting that context upfront is really critical. And then people will generally come up with their own stuff. He'd only just sort of cede ideas. They've got all of these ideas. It's mostly just removing the barriers that prevent them from doing it.