The enigma of agility – Dr Martens’ CTO on strategies for enabling fast-paced retail evolution

At IRX, which co-located with DTX and UCX at London’s Excel Centre this week, we heard from Dr Martens’ CTO & CIO, Ron Garricks, who delivered a keynote session on how brands and retailers could build organisational and technical agility in the face of adversity.   With ruthless prioritisation, building a culture of agility, and ‘adapting, adopting and inventing’ (in that order), he outlined key strategies for retailers wanting to build agility into their businesses.

Change is a constant

“Tech isn’t a one-way trajectory,” Garricks pointed out as he opened the session on the first day of IRX.  Technical teams can spend significant time and investment building out the tech road map that will perfectly mirror the business strategy.  But as the business and the world around it shifts – from unforeseen macro factors (including the pandemic andcost-of-living crisis) to inevitable change driven by customers – the strategy won’t stand still.  And that means tech road maps and the paths to their delivery can’t either.

When Garricks first joined Dr Marten’s three years ago, he inherited a business strategy and tech roadmap that had been penned by one of the large consultants.  He felt it a bit too nebulous for his team to execute on, with the objectives being too vague to be realistically achieved and the path to achieving them hazy, making putting an actionable roadmap in place a challenge.

Instead, he advocated building more flexibility within both the strategy and plan to respond to the needs of change, with the roadmap needing to be agile enough to flex within the guardrails of the overarching business strategy.  As he put it:

“It’s all about understanding that what gets you from ‘a’ to ‘b’ won’t necessarily get you to ‘c’ – and while we can make a path to follow, change is unescapable.”

Ruthless prioritisation

Dr Martens’ brand culture celebrates the authentic, true self, and internally its teams adopt the mantra that ‘you can do anything, but you can’t do everything’.  This means ruthlessly focusing on the key actions or tech that become the most pressing to drive agility in the business.  It’s about understanding not just what is important in the now, but being able to reassess and ask the question, if things change, how does my priority list shift, Garricks told the audience.

He pointed to the onset of the covid pandemic, which prompted the iconic boot brand to switch to a ‘survive now, grow later’ approach.  This upended its IT infrastructure priorities.  What was once lower down the list, such as migrating video conferencing capabilities and bolstering bandwidth to the HQ office to support VPNs for all staff, suddenly became mission critical.

Finding the balance

Being effectively able to build agility into a retail business also relies on the culture of the organisation itself, Garricks suggested.

“It’s about cultural behaviour – providing the framework for agility and giving teams and individuals the freedom to operate within those parameters, while striking the right balance between process, governance and innovation.”

This better positions the business to adapt and evolve to mirror, reflect and take action during periods of change.

And tech has a role to play here; bringing it closer to the teams and supporting closer relationships between tech partners and the business, will be a key conduit in evolution and instilling agility within an organisation.

Adopt, adapt, invent – and in that order

Garricks also talked about how businesses can learn from cross-functional teams or divisions in other locales and bring in best practice to improve agility.

He suggested ‘adopting’ improvements or untapped capabilities if you see something is working well, ‘adapting’ it if it needs to adjust to meet the business need or goal, or, if there isn’t anything that works, then moving towards ‘inventing’ – but he’s quite specific that it must be done in that order to the most business value and return on investment (ROI) to be realised.

Ron Garricks was speaking at IRX, which co-located with DTX and UCX at London’s Excel Centre on 12 & 13 October 2022.  For more information on IRX’s future events, webinars and conferences, visit: Events – Internet Retailing.

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