ITW | John Vary – Innovation Manager, John Lewis

“Tech has to be understandable effortlessly”

in brief

Last month, we were delighted to attend the informal talk between John Lewis’ Innovation Manager, John Vary, and journalist Rachel Arthur, during the FashTech Summit in London.

We seized the opportunity to ask him a few questions about his role at John Lewis and how he believes innovation can happen within an established brand as John Lewis, and asked him for a few key advices on how to create the best conditions for the best ideas to emerge.


John Lewis Smart Home

As the Innovation Manager of John Lewis, John Vary’s job involves three areas:

Innovating internally

“I head up a skunkworks within John Lewis. Room Y is an innovation studio that focuses on ideas that can help John Lewis revolutionise how its customers engage with the brand. We concentrate with things our focus is on concepts that are not on the shelves, created 100% in Room Y. Our process mostly looks at human behaviour, and exploring what we can do with new technologies and products to really help contextualize retail.  Our goal is to get these concepts in front of customers as quickly as possible to start learning and reiterating what we create.”

Innovating externally

“We have J.LAB, a John Lewis technology accelerator. JLab runs for the third year, this year. What Jlab does is really giving the opportunity to explore ideas that are external to our business, because, you know as as business and as a retail department, you don’t have the right to every ideas that is available… But alongside JLAB we also support the startup communities,  giving them the opportunity to learn from John Lewis and from us, and we learn a lot from them. We are sharing!”

Empowering people

“The third thing is empowering people in our business to really think differently around innovation and creativity. You know, most of the time there is a lot of trendy talk about innovation and creativity but there is little or no action to instigate change. At John Lewis there is this huge ambition to be innovative, and keep being innovative to stay an innovative retailer. So I really just want to encourage people, empower people’s ideas when they think differently about retail and challenge what we are doing today, give them a voice, we know not every ideas are going to be right, but occasionally it does! We are relentlessly  curious, we are continuously asking why and this for me is a  vitally important behavior for innovation.”


John Lewis Smart Home

Is it just experiments or you pursue until the prototypes become products?

“Experimentation is a very important phase in the process, but we don’t want to just experiment we want real people to engage with what we create, so we can learn quickly and make the changes based on data and insights. We want to get the things that we have done into the shop. Over the last year, we brought quite a range of special projects that we worked on and put them live  in stores. For example there is a smart home project, that went live in April 2016, in Oxford street. There is a huge amount of experimentation to develop these types of projects, but to prove that they are valuable we really to take those concepts to the stores and let our customers engage with it.”

Do you think your job at JL is different from other innovation Managers? Does JL have a different approach?

“Every Innovation Manager will have a different set of objectives and a way of expressing themselves, and I think innovation manager is a very special function that enables you to express yourself in unique ways that are really specific to the industry you’re in.

I started in the business not wanting to talk about innovation, not wanting to focus on keywords that go around innovation. I wanted to really just do things, actually simple yet impactful innovation, and try to change retail and complement the John Lewis business. I think that If you look for innovation, it is entirely spread across all the different industries, and it is really always different. Because a lot of innovations teams will be looking at external sources of inspiration for innovation where we wanted to focus on the DNA of the John Lewis business. I really wanted to start building things internally and get this experimentation behavior to become contagious across John Lewis.


Is the best KPI having no KPI?

What do you think is mandatory for a brand / a team to be truly innovative?

“The first thing is you need to be fearless. Because once you have the fear, your are heading to a certain type of thinking which will always be conservative, you are going to play safe…. You need to be fearless because there is always the need to leave an element of unknowing at the beginning, to leave the natural surroundings of business as usual, and really explore ideas. Of course those ideas get refined with time! People are the most important part of the innovation, and a fearless team goes further!  The second thing is curiosity, people need to be always asking, always challenging, always trying other ways of doing things. And the third part is being cross-functional, to have multi-disciplined people. You don’t want three or four people within your team to have the same skills. The team needs to complement each other.”

You said during a talk that innovation teams “need to be on their own and be able experiment without KPIs” – how to keep this environment of freedom?

“In a business like John Lewis, you will always have business as usual, processes, governance and than you have the big deliveries. But you need to be able to protect innovation! You need to have a process and space where innovation can be nurtured and ideas can grow. If you start to put marks on ideas you start to put pressure, and then people start to fear having ideas different from the conservative ideas.

Innovation needs to be kept away from all the other flows in a space where you can actually experiment freely, without a pressure over it. At least at the beginning. Once you get through the innovation process, you start to eventualise the compatibility within the business and measurements start to get added. But at the beginning it needs to be on its own, and supported and do it within the group.”


“It should never be technology-centered ideas.”

How do you get the ideas? How to find the balance between technology oriented ideas and human centered solutions?

“It should never be technology-centered ideas, they always need to be human-centered ideas and technology should be one of the pillars that support it. And you can have ideas born with this new technology because they play an important role to enable this. But you really need to focus on the output, the story, for the customer and how you want them to react and feel and why do you want this innovation. Then you look back through the process and you look at  technology, and how to use it for the experiment you want to build.”

Give us an example of ideas you got from another field?

“One of the first thing we built when I arrived to John Lewis was the interactive sofa studio. There was a tangible interactive way where you can visualize how sofas would look like using:  3D printing small scale reproduction of the sofa and pieces of fabric, you put the two things on a table, and the technology was able to read the fabric and shape the sofa you chose on the screen. Before that the inspiration really came from the curiosity people have: how we looked at objects, how curious we are about shapes and colors how they the two get together, how they explored the different combinations, and how it was easy to play with their games. “

“We wanted it to be something where customers would be able to contextualize the physicality of the sofa, and be able to have that curiosity, exploration and playfulness. To really understand what their shape were about and how those shapes will work with the chosen fabric and get fabric leverages as well.”


Jlab, the John Lewis Innovation Lab

Can you tell us more about JLAB?

“JLab is the startup accelerator from John Lewis and Innovation Partner L Marks. What we do is at large, we open application for any startup around the world,  then there is a competition, and at the end, winners have the opportunity to win up to 100 000 pounds in exchange of equity in their company calculated on a mutually-agreed company valuation. You can check for more informations on our website.

What I am doing is: when they apply, and we get from hundred and fifty to hundred and ninety applications, my team and I pick some startups from of the applications and allow them to pitch.  The first five pitches are welcomed in for a week of accelerator program. We give them a place to work with us, and help them with what they want to do with John Lewis. Until, they pitch their final idea to the judges and the winner is chosen.

At the end, some get funded, but there is also an opportunity for physical products, to be sold at John Lewis. There are different kind of products, you can check on the website. It all depends on what the idea is. It depends on what they are, it is pretty open.”

“Technology needs to be effortless and humanized”, can you comment that sentence you said in an interview?

“We have experienced this when we were developing the smart home. We found that the topic was so complex, that it was difficult for customers to engage with it. But did the technology needed to be completely juvenile to work? No, we wanted customer to approach the opportunity offered by the smart home without being repulsed by its complexity. So what we had to do was to simplify the experience, it was all about humanizing the experience and making it really natural, giving it natural function. Making things that really support you through technology, but you don’t really know it’s there. It needed to be really simple interactions, no cables, no mouse. When you look at the experiment with studio and 3D printed sofas and the fabric shaping, it was the same kind of humanization of the technology. We really wanted the technology to be understandable effortlessly.”

What do you think are the three main innovations that can disrupt fashion?

“One is really wearable. By Wearables I mean wearables such as Project Jacquard, that Google teams are developing. I am a really fascinated by the wearables that you actually wear! It’s the future. The second one, virtual reality, and it’s a bit trendy at the moment, but i am convinced that the visualization function you know, will transform all lot of fashion aspects such as the buying process. The third one, is artificial intelligence. With all the things that computers will learn, we will be able to do a lot of new things. it is again a really trendy word right now. I think that it will make a big improvement on personalization and on different shaping kind of concepts and sizing.”

What are your plans for the future What’s next?

“We are running the smart home concept on several stores and we also have the Jlab contest all going at the moment. And it is very exciting!”


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