Ocado's CTO on how to make your business more innovative

Why Paul Clarke thinks of his team like a dry stone wall.

by Jack Torrance
Last Updated: 13 Sep 2017

You might think of Ocado as an online supermarket. But it likes to think of itself first and foremost as a tech company, not least because its long-term plan for growth is all about licensing its innovative services and inventions to other supermarkets.

Its technology ranges from automated warehouse robotics to big data processes that can predict customer behaviour and help optimise the routes its drivers take. It’s even working on automated delivery trucks. The man responsible for corralling all of this nifty kit, and the techies that develop and operate it, is Paul Clarke, Ocado’s CTO.

‘Working at Ocado is very much like being on a rollercoaster that's still under construction - you come around the corner, you think you know what to expect, but you find somebody has slapped a whole new barrel role there that wasn't there the previous time,’ he said last week at Disruption Summit Europe, hosted by Disruption Magazine and PA Consulting. ‘If we didn't have the next big challenge around the corner, I suspect we wouldn't retain the extraordinary talent that's accumulated in our business.’

Here are some of his thoughts on how other businesses can cultivate a similar culture:

Think of your team like a dry stone wall

‘Many organisations like to grow by recruiting regular, predictable individuals. It's a bit like building a wall with breeze blocks. It's very regular and efficient, but it's also extremely boring and linear,’ said Clarke. Instead, he suggests, you should think of your team as a dry stone wall – those higgledy-piggledy, cement-free barriers you see separating fields in the northern countryside.

‘We believe we have a culture that can accommodate irregularly shaped individuals. This irregularity fuels diversity and it also creates resilience because the pieces lock together to form highly creative, cohesive and resilient teams, just like what happens in a real dry stone wall.’

Lead, but don’t micromanage

‘If you want people to be innovative, you have to tell them you expect them to be innovative. They won’t necessarily just wake up one day and realise it. You need to structure your business and processes to facilitate it, you need to have a strong vision to direct it. But then you need to light the blue touch paper, retire and get the hell out of their way.’

Actively tolerate risks

It’s not exactly an original idea but it’s crucial nonetheless. ‘You cannot innovate as fast as we do, without taking risks. And then it's absolutely crucial that you have no blame culture that comes from the top. Of course we do a post-mortem to extract learnings, but then we move on. What we definitiely do not say, is "that must never happen again" - because we know that something like it almost certainly will. It's just part and parcel of being a disruptor.’

Don’t expect to innovate in an orderly fashion

‘Innovation for me is best summed up as being like playing a game of extreme, non-linear snakes and ladders. Some of the most exciting innovations can follow on from the biggest failures. It's all about intersectional thinking. It's about stealing ideas from those unlikely places and applying them to your problem domain.

‘The non-linear piece is about serendipity, it's about chance encounters, making leaps of faith. And spending some time on stuff that makes absolutely no sense on paper but just feels like it might lead somewhere exciting in the end. There's a real danger of trying to tidy up innovation too much.’

Empower your people to get on with it

Ocado has a team of ‘R&D-as-a-service’ engineers. ‘If you think of our normal engineering teams as being like conventional [armed] forces, these guys are like the special forces. They're highly self-sufficient, they're multi-disciplinary, they operate to different rules of engagement, they go behind enemy lines.

‘They can blow things up - which in this analogy means they can mess with production systems in order to get the data they need. Basically they can do what they need to do to experiment fast without being held up by having to co-ordinate with our mainstream teams.’

Get some new blood (and ideas)

‘We have a very strong tradition of internships, which I see as a kind of organisational gene therapy,’ said Clarke. ‘They remind us what true agility looks like. On Friday we had our annual intern fair, and there's nothing more exciting than going round and seeing what people, from a standing start early in their university careers, are able to do when you give them the facilities, give them some mentoring, give them a stretch challenge, get out of their way and let them create.’

Image source: Lupin/Wikipedia

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