Lots of people are talking about “transformation.” And I hate it.
It’s easy to see why transformation is a popular topic: Markets are faster and smarter; customer expectations are changing; and organizations carry the burden of legacy systems. Jim Whitehurst, Red Hat’s CEO, wrote that this upheaval affects not only what you do, but how you do it. It’s about culture. And that’s something that a lot of organizations struggle with.
“Organizational structure—how you work, the culture that permeates and guides your activities—matters more than ever.” - Jim Whitehurst, president and CEO, Red Hat
In the midst of this upheaval, the mantra for many organizations has become “evolve or die.” It’s a good mantra, for sure. But it doesn’t really say much. That’s why I hate the word transformation. I’m an engineer, so I solve problems. The word transformation doesn’t explain the problem to me.
Lots of people talk about “transformation” in the abstract. But I want to tell you how we’re doing it at Target.
Where did all the makers go?
I was at Target from 1993 to 2005. Target was the little guy back then. We were hungry and scrappy, and more than anything else, we wanted to change the way retail was done. There was a corporate hierarchy, sure, but every executive had an open door and an open mind. And that allowed us to act like a flat organization.
Things had changed when I came back to Target in 2013, though. We had grown to 1,800 stores and like so many other companies, we were focused on growth and optimization. But we had lost a lot of our “doers”—the people who made things happen. The ones who remained were unmotivated and unrecognized.
I believe we’re in a fertile moment where “makers” can influence corporations and create real change. In other words, makers are essential to transformation. The question for Target was: Could we find our way back to our roots and move forward as a company?
How we’re doing it
Change is difficult, especially when you’re working within a large organization. But if you’re bold and push against the walls, the walls may just fall. And that’s exactly what happened with me.
At Target, we created the Rapid Accelerated Development (RAD) team. This team builds digital proofs of concept for the business by testing and learning—and we do it very quickly. Here’s what we’ve learned from building RAD.
Find the doers, join forces, and collaborate. You can’t use an org chart to find the doers. Often, the best makers and creators aren’t at the top of the org chart—they’re off in the corner. The doers are the people who want to work with you. Once you find these people, join forces, give them an open space to work, and help them collaborate.
Be the prototype. Our process was very different than what most people had grown accustomed to at Target. The RAD team required that representatives from the business sit with technologists while we worked on projects. This made a lot of people uncomfortable. They were used to throwing requirements over the fence for others to execute. But our process worked. People liked working this way. Before we knew it, we had created a model that started to infect the rest of the organization.
Wave your banner proudly. Change starts small and gains momentum. With each new hire, we added another person to carry our banner and build a great place where people want to work. In 18 months, we brought in more than 150 talented, creative, passionate software engineers. We rewrote more than 60% of our core .com platform away from purchased products and onto open source. And we engaged our wider digital community by holding regular meetups and supporting local STEM schools and nonprofits. This is a place where people want to work. And they’re proud of what they’re doing.
In the end, transformation—or solving problems—isn’t about one person. It’s not about me or any of the other founders or executives. It’s about setting up the right environment and then getting out of the way. It’s about the business and technologists collaborating, trying new approaches, failing fast, and loving what they do.