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J.C. Penney: A Tale of Battle and Victory

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The team at J.C. Penney was geared up for battle — and survival was the only option.

Struggling since 2012, the company was staring down the barrel of Holiday 2014 with a lack of tech competence. J.C. Penney was solvent, but nothing had happened in the digital arena in almost three years.

“When you’re in such bad shape, it is very, very motivating,” said digital retail executive Lance Thornswood, who has worked with both J.C. Penney and Target. “We really had to make unbelievable changes in essentially no time.”

Thornswood, part of the team specifically brought in to help “get the car out of the ditch,” shared his experiences at the Digital Experience Workshop as a case study of driving rapid, sustainable innovation.

We really had to make unbelievable changes in essentially no time.
Lance Thornswood
Former digital executive, J.C. Penney

The session, “Driving Radical Change in Customer Experience,” was the tale of 90 days in a war room, with about 45 members of a carefully assembled, multi-departmental S.W.A.T. team sharing both physical space and dedicated mission. Decisions were to be made on site, in real-time, as much as possible — and if outside approval was necessary, it had to be brought back to the daily stand-up meeting within 24 hours, or the group would move ahead. The time together bred a true shared sense of ownership.

“By the third week, it kind of became almost its own organization,” he said. “The number of decisions that had to leave the room by week three was almost nil.”

All the time rather than one-time

At the close of the three months, part of the result was a completely redesigned app with, for example, enhanced predictive search; a new layout that “makes the product the hero”; greater ease in finding matching items; the ability to scan a bar code in-store and discover size and availability; coupons; and advanced filter options. The app has continued to develop since.

That last point is essential: Rather than looking at change as something that has to be a one-time, expensive proposition, Thornswood spoke of a “good enough is good enough for now” mindset, in which change continues in increments. Just like with the subway, there will always be another train — and another opportunity to improve.

And while hanging out at that station, a number of other best practices for rapid and sustainable change emerged:

  • Focus on a few key measurable things, and let the rest go. This begins, Thornswood said, with a thorough understanding of the company’s business levers, as well as what areas can have the greatest impact. For J.C. Penney, this involved both an and the iPhone app.
  • Ask what a “win” looks like — and seek an answer in purely observable, objective terms. The team should be able to clearly tell whether a process has worked.
  • Assemble a team with an agile-style mindset. In J.C. Penney’s case, members of the team were able to give up all other duties to focus on the task at hand, with full support of management.
  • Recognize that everyone has a voice, but not everyone has a vote. This isn’t about steamrolling others, Thornswood said. But when it comes to user experience and customer experience, everyone has an opinion. That doesn’t mean they should necessarily make the decisions.

Today, the goal is to “keep it going, keep it fast and keep winning” with new capabilities every month. Iterating small and fast has continued to deliver the desired results.

War room or not, the mindset remains as the spoils of war. 


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