Successes, learnings and ‘stinky fish’ amid cross-functional teams

NRF Nexus: Fostering a mindset of continuous improvement with The Vitamin Shoppe, Gap and Tractor Supply Company

“Succeeding together: Aligning cross-functional teams to deliver innovation” showcased the best of what NRF Nexus had to offer. In addition to an authentic and knowledgeable panel, the session included representation from IT, digital and marketing leaders; openly covered learnings from past failures and successes; and offered insight for organizations of all sizes.

The panel was helmed by Andrew Laudato, chief operating officer of The Vitamin Shoppe, based on concepts from his new book, “Fostering Innovation: How to Build an Amazing IT Team.” Joining him on stage were Heather Mickman, chief information officer, Gap Inc.; Christi Korzekwa, chief marketing officer, Tractor Supply Company; and Tamara Pircz, vice president, digital commerce, The Vitamin Shoppe.

NRF Nexus 2022 recap

Take a look at more content from this year’s event in Southern California.

“This is pretty much what NRF Nexus is all about,” said Jill Dvorak, NRF vice president of content and retail strategy, in her introductions.

The discussion kicked off with key takeaways from the event overall. Korzekwa, noting Tractor Supply’s own legendary customer service, was struck by the expansion of Walmart’s InHome delivery, scaling a white-glove experience to 30 million households. Mickman found insightful data and trends from consumer research — and was surprised to learn that almost half of Gen Z and Millennials feel more like themselves online than in real life. And Pircz is now considering practical use cases for AI.

The panelists shared their company organizational structures, and then Laudato dove right in to ask about individual projects that hadn’t gone as well as hoped or planned.

“We all know intuitively it’s OK to fail, and it’s actually a necessary part of progress,” he said. “But that doesn’t make it easy. Failure is painful. Learning from failure helps, and it is the key to success.”

Korzekwa told the tale of importing customer data from a third party a handful of years ago. Everyone was prepared, and it appeared all would go well. But during the last 45 days of ingestion, there were end-of-year budget cuts — including for that project. Taking a hard-charging stance, she recalled, “We said, ‘We can do this,’ rather than being practical and saying, ‘Can we do this?’” They didn’t take shortcuts, but they couldn’t accomplish everything needed, and the company ended up paying for it for two years.

“We have a wonderful, very hygienic database now, but if I had to go back, I would have gone into my CEO’s office and said, ‘You’re asking me to do something that is just not going to be possible to do.’” She would have explained that it would cost more in the long run, and that it needed to be paused or to receive more money.

On the plus side, however, Korzekwa spoke about the recent relaunch of the Neighbor’s Club rewards program, with roughly half of the project meetings related to change management. There was great effort to ensure everyone was clear on the intended customer experience — including the coders. Projects are successful cross-functionally when there is trust, she said. The company’s sense of relationship holds true not only with customers, but also with its more than 45,000 team members who share the mindset that customers’ lives are better because of what they do.

At Gap — which encompasses Gap, Old Navy, Athleta and Banana Republic — the learnings came with a large Workday implementation last year. In some ways, it was successful for the more than 100,000 employees. But it brought great lessons in change management.

“While we did have change management and were training the teams on using the new tool, what we underestimated is that we also were making fundamental change to how HR functions were being delivered to the employees,” Mickman said. It was a move from an HR-enabled handholding process to self-service, creating a lot of friction.

Mickman continues to learn the importance of change management as more of the business is digitally enabled. “Helping the business understand how to adopt the capabilities is super important,” she said. They talk in terms of the “gulp rate,” or what the business can actually handle.

Conversely, she shared the success of converting the company’s credit card issuer and payment network to Barclays and Mastercard. The effort, which took about 14 months and 900 people across Gap and Barclays to pull off, involved 10 million credit cards. And the conversion was “seamless”; the biggest issue was that some of the reporting wasn’t as clean as desired.

“I was amazed,” she said. “I was so proud of the team and everything that we were able to accomplish.” She attributes the success to hand-in-hand, honest communication throughout, even with the business teams — including transparent “stinky fish” conversations to address problems early.

Pircz, meanwhile, told the story of when The Vitamin Shoppe purchased a company that offered a subscription-based personalized pill pack, including the technology and supply chain manufacturing process. The challenge was that it was an “edge” project rather than aligned with the company’s core.

In hindsight — especially after hearing a session on disruption earlier in the week that talked about having the right team and learning mindset in place for such a project, she said — she reflected on how it could have gone differently. Trying to make it work “the way that everything else did” simply wasn’t successful.

On her plus side: the rollout of buy online, ship to store. She credits cross-functional transparency, great communication and healthy dialogue about why speed is really important to the customer. A charter was created, including KPIs and documentation for measuring success.

And from here forward, Pircz said, she believes she’ll open every meeting with a question about the “stinky fish” of the conversation.

The learnings, apparently, continue.

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