Risky Business: What Target and other Big Companies Can Learn from Startups

August 19, 2014 - Article reads in
Alan Wizemann perspectives on Target.

A Bullseye View “Perspectives” is a forum for Target’s top executives to share their point of view on everything from industry trends to best business practices. In the story below, Alan Wizemann, who joined Target this summer as Vice President of Product, Target.com & Mobile, shares insight into how Target is learning to bring about innovation faster. An avid race car driver, Alan likes to go fast in real life, too.

Earlier this summer, I had the opportunity to sit front and center to watch the first round of startups “graduate” from the Target Accelerator in India. Over the years, I’ve heard hundreds (if not thousands) of these types of pitches before. I’ve served as a mentor to startup accelerators and have made startup pitch presentations myself to countless audiences – conferences, corporations and, of course, venture capitalists.

For the first time in my career, I found myself on the other side of the table. Now I was the one thinking about how to incorporate the technology that these startups have created, or how to work with them to push the innovation for Target.com and Mobile teams. While I sat listening to the pitches, a couple questions crossed my mind: Why is it so hard for a large company to think and act more like a startup? And, better yet, can we learn to move faster from these startups?

In many ways, my new role at Target is to solve that problem and help our digital teams to think, act and deliver more like nimble startups. As I thought about these questions, remarkably, the answer I kept coming back to was simple: risk.

Startups are the embodiment of risk. Big enterprises, by their very structure and nature, often try to avoid risk because dramatic changes can feel like abandoning a successful formula. Risk to me is healthy and a trait that leads to strength in developing innovative solutions. Without it, teams don’t think outside of their daily activities, envelopes aren’t pushed and bold ideas aren’t pursued or shared. In today’s rapidly changing world, big companies like Target need to look at risk more like a startup – or risk failing from inaction.

For a large company to really move and act more like a startup, it doesn’t require betting the house – like the founders of startups often have to do. In fact, that’s one of the great advantages of established companies. But it does require major changes and culture shifts. It means recognizing, like startups do, that failure is the most likely outcome, and then embracing that reality to drive towards success. It means constantly changing and gauging the marketplace and moving quickly to capitalize on what works, iterating along the way, and dumping what doesn’t work.

For startups, this approach brings about both speed and innovation. Many large companies struggle with taking that fail-fast, iterative approach because they view failure as a four-letter word. So they miss out on opportunities to turn those initial failures into new, innovative successes.

During the development of Cartwheel, we hit a number of roadblocks and Target could have shut down the project completely, as reported recently by the Star Tribune newspaper. Even when we launched in May 2013, there were doubts and there were flaws. But the team was empowered to seek and act on real-time guest feedback, and we made a host of changes that helped make Cartwheel the success it is today. We need to work this way more at Target.

We must get more comfortable with this kind of approach. So we’re working to make sure our teams can move faster to get ideas in front of guests. We believe testing, learning and iterating on guest feedback – constantly and quickly – is a vital part of how Target will win at omnichannel retail.

Back in India, as the startup pitches came to a close, I grew more excited about my new role. I realized this accelerator was about more than Target helping startups and seeing if they could help Target and our guests. My colleagues and I were there to learn – to foster a culture of innovation and agile methodologies – and ensure that Target will thrive long into the future by changing our culture to embrace risk.

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