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Driving Internal Innovation: How Store No. 8 Launched Walmart’s iD8 (Part 1/3)

By Otto the Octopus

December 19, 2018

This year, Store No. 8, Walmart People and Walmart Technology launched iD8, an internal Associate incubation bootcamp in partnership with Techstars. The pilot program took place in Bentonville, AR and was a success for both Walmart and Techstars. In this 3-part interview series, we’ll cover what iD8 is and how we got it off the ground; the challenges, successes, and day-to-day of the program; and finally, a retrospective with advice for other companies who also want to inspire entrepreneurship and innovation internally.

What is your role within Walmart or Techstars? What was your involvement in iD8?

Sharat Alankar (SA): I work on the Store No. 8 team, mostly on incubation strategy, and I led iD8 from a business standpoint. I developed the structure of the program, alongside the various executive and business sponsors, while also partnering with the participants to help develop their business plans and solutions.

Laura Sanders (LS): I work at Techstars leading Corporate Innovation programs as an Entrepreneur in Residence. I’m lucky enough to have led iD8 on the ground in Bentonville. My role was both to teach the principles of entrepreneurship and to bring Techstars’ worldwide network of experienced mentors to Walmart. I helped participants apply learnings by offering advice, finding great speakers and sharing real-world examples.

Why did you want to launch this program at Walmart?

SA: We launched it for 3 main reasons:

  1. There is a deep spirit of innovation at Walmart that we wanted to harness, channel and grow. There are a lot of Associates that have a desire to get involved but don’t always have an outlet.

  2. We wanted to give the Associates an opportunity to develop their skills. iD8 allowed participants to develop their abilities in entrepreneurial thinking, approaches to innovation, and pitching solutions.

  3. There are major business opportunities at Walmart that need innovative solutions, that may or may not be in the current roadmap. iD8 allowed participants to quickly tackle these opportunities and pitch their solutions directly to the executives who can implement them.

Why did you choose to partner with Techstars?

SA: We knew there were tried-and-tested innovation models already out there, so we didn’t want to reinvent the wheel. But, we couldn’t take a one-size-fits-all approach because there are nuances unique to Walmart around which we needed to design the program. This was why we chose to partner with Techstars. Their experience running these programs in a variety of industries allowed us to benefit from their learnings, but they were also flexible, willing to partner, and willing to restructure their program to satisfy our requirements.

How did you get iD8 off the ground?

SA: We wanted this program to be different from how it’s usually approached. Typically, similar programs are sponsored by a senior executive, but we found that often the program falls flat during implementation due to lack of buy-in from mid-level leaders (who are critical for the execution.) From the beginning I worked with Katie Finnegan (Founding Principal of Store No. 8) to get buy-in from few different sets of stakeholders:

  1. Senior Executives: This was something our top leadership already really cared about, which was critical. Marc Lore (President & CEO, Walmart eCommerce U.S. | Founder & CEO, was personally excited about it, as were Lori Flees (SVP/DMM, Sam's Club Health & Wellness and Principal, Store No. 8), Jacqui Canney (EVP, Global People Division), Jeremy King (EVP & CTO) and Clay Johnson (EVP and Enterprise CIO). We got their buy-in early to help sponsor and promote the program internally.

  2. Business Leaders: Since we wanted to build impactful business solutions, we needed these stakeholders to be involved. We got buy-in from 3 key organizations at Walmart: Central Operations (led by Mark Ibbotson); Supply Chain (led by Greg Smith); and Walmart Services (led by Daniel Eckert). We worked with their teams to identify and scope out the business problems that the iD8 teams would set out to solve.

  3. Internal Mentors: We also had participation from various internal, Walmart mentors across the organization at various levels of seniority. These mentors made themselves available on a weekly basis to provide guidance to our teams.

How was the program structured?

SA: The program was structured into 2 Phases, the 3-Day Challenge (preceded by applications) and the 10-Week Bootcamp (proceeded by the Innovation Showcase):

How did you choose the participants?

SA: We wanted a group that could think differently and find truly innovative solutions to existing problems, so we needed a diverse group from various departments, backgrounds, and levels of experience. In terms of roles, we had Associates from both highly technical and non-technical business units; and in terms of experience, some participants had recently graduated college and were working at Walmart in their first job, while others had been with the company for up to 26 years.

LS: They did a great job selecting the group — they were engaged and clearly excited to participate from Day 1. Since all of the teams’ projects had the potential to be implemented, they were incredibly supportive of each other. There was a real connection forged among all of these participants that I think neither they nor I expected.

What makes iD8 different from say, a hackathon?

  1. SA: Other hackathons are generally quite short (only a couple of days) and participation is primarily by product and engineering teams. Ours was differentiated by:

  2. Length: The sheer length of our program (3 days, followed by 10 weeks) meant more time and effort was put into fleshing out an idea. This level of due diligence was necessary to build something that would be impactful to the core business.

  3. Time & Resources: We wanted Associates to be able to devote extended amounts of time and fully immerse themselves in their iD8 projects. This required allowing Associates to take some time away from their day jobs, and we worked closely with individual participants’ managers to get their approval.

  4. Participation: Hackathons are generally heavily attended by engineering and product teams. Whereas we wanted to expand to everyone in Walmart’s Bentonville offices, including other departments like marketing, legal, merchandising, and store operations. We felt this would lead to the the most innovative solutions that considered all sorts of requirements and constraints (not just technical ones), and could have the broadest impact in developing Associates’ skills.

LS: Hackathons and 3-day startup weekends are valuable, but the length of the iD8 program allows a company like Walmart to foster an environment that results in sustained learning. The growth, support, feedback, and camaraderie from participants and mentors will have long-lasting effects. Initially there was some resistance to participants taking time out of their weekly job, but over time, it became apparent how meaningful the program was. The participants were also really dedicated — they would come in on their off time, and still execute on their regular jobs just as they normally would.

In addition, what they’re learning actually results in a lot of return for managers. Participants have come back to class and said “I used what we learned yesterday with my boss and they thought it was really interesting, so now we’re going in a different direction.”

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