Day 2 of the NRF (National Retail Federation) ‘Big Show’ got straight into it and the shifted gears from Day 1 with the focus clearly on tech and diversity in retail. Both of which are two massive changes we’re experiencing at a meta level in society (hello #metoo). On initial observations these two societal changes feel unrelated but in truth at the heart of them is our own humanity. Our innate drive for equality (a return to equilibrium through the rise of the feminine) and our innate drive for growth and improvement.
We often think of progress as linear going from a to b; however progress is more like a spiral, where ideas move in revolutions. At times we feel like we’re going backwards only to realise we’re once again being catapulted forwards. Change and movement through these spirals doesn’t happen in a consistent time, rather at times ideas speed up and at other times they slow down. This current revolution is bringing us away from the polarity of a male dominated industry and technological rationalism towards equality and human-centred design + technology.
The NRF is an interesting microcosm of this larger change – showing me that we’re still  not quite there yet…though I’m optimistic.
This is how equality and human-centred design is manifesting…

Equality + the Whisper Network

In Day 2 we had the emergence of a theme around women in power, something that sometimes sits uneasy with me – not the concept of women in power but rather how it’s discussed, namely because the larger issue is equality and often these panels don’t address the real matters within it like equal pay and treatment. There’s this tap dance around what’s really going on – the more sensitive issues that we experience in the workplace. The stuff we (women) whisper about after (hence the Whisper Network – also in reference to the book for those familiar).
The second presentation of the day was a panel led PWC’s Shannon Schuyler with Merdes Abramo (CEO and president of Cartier), Shawn Outler (Chief Diversity Officer at Macy’s) and Tammy Sheffer (Chief People Officer at Rent the Runway). This panel had good intentions – but we all know that the road to failure is paved with these. There wasn’t once a mention of equal pay or the true behaviours that need to change in a work place to create equality.
What I mean by this is for all the rhetoric and not action, when it comes to equality the real proof and behaviours are often missing. We are at a point in time where men and women have to work together to create greater equality even if it means taking some steps which feel outside of the status quo (something Richard Branson raised at the NRF a couple of years ago).  A great example of how intentions mismatch action was on display at the NRF (though don’t think this is an exception to the rule). The NRF have been promoting women in leadership over this conference and running a women’s lounge (which I still find a weird concept); yet when it came down to their own action they promoted another ‘white male’ to their board this year. Added to that they have no female representation on their board leadership team, and only 6 women (out of 30 positions) on their exec committee. Arguable typical of the ‘average retailer’, but when we add in the context that we’re in a society where there are more women than men in workforce….things start to look even more inequitable.
Where this topic got really interesting was actually in the subsequent session with Kara Swisher (Co-founder of Re-Code) and Paul Ryan (Former Speaker for the House of Representatives). This was a discussion on the broader US economy but really it was an example of what the women in the session before should have touched upon. Swisher is a strong women – in fact she’s almost Athenian like -but I couldn’t help but feel shocked when Ryan kept talking over her, and even leaned over to touch her shoulder, on multiple occasion – in order to grab her attention (literally) so he could keep talking. These things might seem small, but they are the things these panels don’t talk about. The times when women aren’t listened to (because we by nature have a different communication style), the times women are spoken over – because our leadership style might be softer, and the times we are patted on the shoulder in order to stop and focus all our attention at the male next to us. Women in leadership is not something women alone need to drive, rather it’s whole of society shift. It’s about embracing all styles of communication, of leadership and creating greater compassion for one another in the work environment – not replacing but balancing out the masculine culture that currently lives here.
I’m looking forward to a 2020 and beyond that moves from talking about women in leadership to just great leadership – that values empathy, equality and emotional intelligence.

Human Centred Design + Technology

The rest of day two and some of day three was dedicated to the introduction of humanity back into technology (part of me feels like this taps into the shift above). After years and years at the NRF dedicated to technology rationalism – by that I mean focused on what’s feasibly with technology from artificial intelligence, machine learning, CRM, big data…you name it…all the Buzzwords. The underlying appeal behind a lot of these inventions was either a means to save on the bottom line (questions like how can I use AI to reduce staff cost) or marketing value (this is often where that useless tech like mirrors that show you an outfit fit in).
This year, thanks to Kevin Johnson (CEO of Starbucks), there was audible shift to thinking about humanity first. Yes, it’s nothing new for those of you familiar with IDEO’s design thinking. To quote Johnson ‘we’re using technology to make humans more human’. Yes, it’s a great line, but its very utterance drew a line in the sand around what retail should be aiming at. Something surprisingly obvious, and yet rarely actioned…as a lot of us would know when we take our retail cap off and become customers. ‘It’s not using tech for tech sake or using it to just drive profit but rather using it in a way that has a positive impact on people’s lives’, said Johnson.
In order to intact this idea of human centred design, Starbucks have undergone massive internal change…but before we get there let’s talk about their strategy. Johnson explained there were two transformative parts to what they were doing:
  1. Exceptional customer experience in their bricks + mortar, to make it a destination for the customer;
  2. Understanding how to extend this to digital customer relationships.
The underlying technology vision is around finding ways to use technology and data to connect people. As we all know strategy without culture is just deemed to fail. In order to enact the concept they’ve introduced two process (over the past 2-3 years) you would often see in a Silicon Valley tech company
  1. Rapid innovation cycle: They shifted from long cycle development to a process where they go from idea to action in 100 days. They then learn and adapt. What is created under this method is human centred designed, starting with partners (considering their partners aka their staff firstly) and then the customers. Now there’s some key details to make this work like KPI’s, responsibility etc that I’m going to skim over for now.
  2. Agile Development Methodology: In order to meet the rapid innovation cycle, Starbucks introduced an agile development methodology. Normally involving a team of 15 people from cross-functional divisions.  Added to that they built a place for them to work and build – like an incubation lab you would see in Silicon Valley. Within this lab they might have 10-15 different teams work on a range of different projects. The idea is to unleash ideas bottoms up.
Like I said earlier there is a lot of detail that underpins both these points – things tangible and not so tangible like cultural change, commitment and time. However underpinning this is a return to humanity when it comes to technology, starting not by working out where you can drive profit or create a sexy piece of tech…but rather where can tech make us more human…give us more time back to connect with one another.

To close out.

Day 2 raised some big themes and answered one of them. There’s still along way to come when we talk about diversity and equality in the workplace. The scary thing is the unconscious bias that lies here…that was so very obvious every within the NRF (National Retail Federation) organisation. I’m optimistic though about the future and where this incredibly change can lead us.