Fostering the Innovative Culture through Proof of Concept Projects
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Fostering the Innovative Culture through Proof of Concept Projects

Karl Hightower, VP of Transformational Business Solutions, Rent-A-Center [NASDAQ:RCII]
Karl Hightower, VP of Transformational Business Solutions, Rent-A-Center [NASDAQ:RCII]

Karl Hightower, VP of Transformational Business Solutions, Rent-A-Center [NASDAQ:RCII]

At Rent-A-Center, the country’s largest rent-to-own furniture retailer, the most important job of the IT organization is to support the coworkers and customers in the stores. Improving efficiencies in the stores can make a direct impact on the bottom line of the company and helping our stores with this goal often presents great opportunities for Proof of Concept (POC) projects. The advantages of POC projects—quick turn-around and the chance to experiment—make them a great training ground for any IT team, especially when the lessons learned from both finding and implementing these projects can be scalable across the organization. At Rent-A-Center, we’ve discovered that the process of doing POC projects offers numerous insights for our IT group.

Three Areas for inspiration: Where to find POC projects?

IT teams looking for innovative projects to support their businesses can find ideas in a variety of places. Here are three that I’ve found to be particularly good:

Functional crossover areas with new technology

New technologies are often developed for specific use cases but they can be repurposed in other areas. For example, the emerging technology of facial recognition was developed primarily for use in security and fraud prevention. However, technology teams in retail might look to the potential this technology has for customer personalization. Being able to identify the customer as they are walking in and tailor the service to that person provides an edge in creating good relationships with customers.

Spending a day in the end user’s shoes

Whether in the store, the call center, or in the distribution centers, nothing stimulates the creative IT professional quite like having to perform the daily tasks using the systems that we help deliver. What may make sense during the architecture and design process may have very different impacts than originally intended. When having to go through all of the steps needed to service a customer, efficiency insights become readily apparent. In some cases, really innovative ideas are born when IT practitioners work on the ‘front lines’ that not only drastically improve efficiency, but give the field workers a sense of pride in the fact that they work day to day with some very cool new technology.

  ​Innovation can also come from applying existing technical solutions in new ways, yielding benefits for the business   

Getting outside the cube

The third place I’ve found is one that is often overlooked as the day to day whirlwind often encompasses most of our time. Getting outside of your industry vertical and working with or collaborating with other people brings about a much broader and creative lens to your environment. Conferences, universities, and sometimes just contacts with people made over the years (inside and outside the technology space) provide a great opportunity for stimulating ideas and getting a different perspective.

The Impact of Culture on Innovation

The importance of having the right culture in helping to develop innovation through POC projects cannot be emphasized enough. Being able to bring up ideas in an environment that provides healthy discussions and feedback is not only necessary for innovating but also for being able to get through the day-to-day problems we all face. Learning to take constructive criticism on projects without taking things personally as an attack on you is part of growing and learning. I’ve tried to build a culture of bringing ideas in and accepting input from others as not just an option but an expected behavior within my teams.

There are four keys I’ve found to keeping this innovation culture on track:

1. Don’t over-engineer projects. Sometimes projects can get bogged down when people from both IT and the business community try to add too many metrics and analysis. Managing the scope of projects saves frustration for everyone involved.

2. Remember: the solution doesn’t have to be revolutionary. Technical innovation is often thought of as only involving the latest bleeding edge technology. This is sometimes true. But it’s equally true that innovation can also come from applying existing technical solutions in new ways, yielding benefits for the business.

3. Create teams with the right attitude. Pick people who want to try something new and really want to help. When looking for feedback, look to people that are going to be constructive on getting this delivered with the right objective and not looking to kill it because it isn’t either their idea or they think the idea isn’t big enough.

4. Nurture an IT environment where everyone has a willingness to let projects go. The timing of when to release a project is always important but so is the ability to call a project a failure and move on. Many times the lessons learned from projects that appear to be failures translate later into huge wins for the IT team.

Creating teams that can find and implement innovative projects that improve and support the business is not easy but it’s a challenge that’s worth it for any IT team.


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