Is Target leading in non-echo-chamber thinking?

To a greater extent than others, Target is trying to be creative about finding approaches that resonate

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Credit: Target

Like all major retailers, Target is struggling with the challenges from mobile- and e-commerce-focused shoppers. But to a greater extent than others, Target is trying to be creative about finding approaches that resonate — and understands that it must break through the insular thinking that most Fortune 50 companies (it ranks at 36) suffer from.

Target is working, for example, with Techstars to create a three-month mentorship-driven startup accelerator right on Target's Minneapolis main campus. One of the leaders of that movement at Target, Target entrepreneur-in-residence West Stringfellow (he's one of three such EIRs), said this effort is all about getting unorthodox about ways to attack IT and related issues. Stringfellow rattled off quite a few areas of initial interest — including in-store retail, guest experience innovation, shopping personalization, supply chain, fulfillment, returns and sizing — but stressed that Target doesn't want to limit the thinking of companies in the program.

Indeed, the whole point of this exercise is for Target to be exposed to different perspectives, insights that aren't likely to percolate up from within Target's ranks. The chain already has access to the viewpoints of its staffers.

"We've deliberately not narrowed it down to something like personalization," Stringfellow said. "Crowdsourcing is much smarter than any individual. We want to see what is beyond that door."

Techstars has previously worked with Disney, Ford, Barclays and Sprint.

Stringfellow, who has been with Target six months, has a powerhouse profile, having held senior roles at Amazon (senior project manager), PayPal (senior director) and Visa Europe (VP, innovation and e-commerce). By the way, Stringfellow's resume is so lengthy that he had some fun with his LinkedIn profile. At the very end, he added a Wikipedia description of the 1980s TV show Airwolf. The last line in the LinkedIn reference: "Awesomeness ensues." Stringfellow said he did it so he'd know if anyone actually read his profile all the way to the end.

Stringfellow said Target's approach to new ideas — the stellar opposite of the common Silicon Valley not-invented-here syndrome — was quite refreshing. "This is not a Silicon Valley mindset. At other companies, there is a process and you get stuck in it. Lots of personalities and politics," he said, adding that his initial experience at Target reveals "a very methodical approach to consistently expanding the borders" of thought and product/service ideas. Those traits, he said, "speaks to the [senior management's] humility and self-awareness."

The company will seek as many Techstars companies to apply as possible, with about 10 ultimately to be chosen to work on Target's campus.

Target is no stranger to out-of-the-box thinking — and just this week confirmed a 25-store series of trials in Los Angeles, including tests featuring electronic tags, RFID and adviser services — but the chain's methodical approach to outside thinking is encouraging. Hiring all of the best and the brightest is always a good goal, but making the concession to reality that such a goal is impossible (you can't get them all) is a good first step.

There's no requirement for the chain to implement these external ideas, but to have a process to routinely solicit advice from unexpected places, nontraditional talent, is something that should be part of the deal for all major chains.

Although such thinking is always welcome, at times of change — when retail is shifting from a mostly physical reality to a mostly virtual one — going outside is essential. Just about every one-time market leader that imploded did so because of insular thinking. The echo-chamber that is far too common in CEO suites is lethal.

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