Kyle Nel, Executive Director of Lowe’s Innovation Labs

By Peter High, published on Forbes

At the recent Forbes CIO Summit in Half Moon Bay, California, I had the opportunity to share the stage with about a dozen leading technology leaders from a variety of different companies. Included among them were CEOs, CIOs, and venture capitalists. After the event concluded, I reached out to a number of contacts of mine who were in the audience to gauge what they found most interesting, and the person who was mentioned more than any other was Kyle Nel, who is the Executive Director of Lowe’s Innovation Labs at Lowe’s Home Improvement. You might think to yourself, “‘Innovation Labs’ sounds interesting, but Lowe’s? How innovative can that be?” Very innovative, as it turns out.

I first heard about Nel when spending time with Rob Nail, the CEO of Singularity University. He indicated that Nel was a leading example of someone who was a leading innovator. Under Nel’s watch, the Lowe’s Innovation Labs have worked with professional science fiction writers to develop comic book stories plotting Lowe’s future. Those stories have helped seed everything from augmented reality showrooms for customers, robots that will lead you to the product you came to the store to purchase, and the first 3D printer in space. We cover all of the above and more in this wide ranging interview.

Peter High: Kyle, you are the Executive Director of Lowe’s Innovation Labs at Lowe’s Home Improvement. Can you describe your purview and the value that the Innovation Labs add to the broader organization?

Kyle Nel: They are a means to an end. There is a lot of talk about innovation labs, and a lot of money and resources thrown at them, but few results. There are a couple of big success stories, but not in proportion to the amount of resources put into them. We wanted to develop a differentiated, new model for approaching innovation. The labs are just places, it might sound silly and hyperbolas, but they are a different state of mind where we work with what we call uncommon partners, which are organizations that you would not expect Lowe’s to work with, to do things that we would never be able to do on our own because we lack the skills or the resources.

Every organization on the planet is trying to innovate; the problem is that many companies do not know what that means for them. This is an especially difficult problem because the answer is constantly shifting. For Lowe’s, meaningfully innovating is not incrementally improving, which is incredibly important, but incrementally improving is never going to create the next platform of growth. For meaningful growth, you need to have somebody on the outside, or on the inside, creating and building new platforms. Much in the same way that the genesis of every organization was a couple of people got together, they were the rogues and the outliers, and they hit on something at the right place, at the right time. That became the new thing, and they grew an edifice out of it. Lowe’s Innovation Labs are all about making sure that we continuously grow.

The fundamental difference between our lab and others is that I am not a tech person. I am a behavioral scientist. I want to create meaningful behavior change and develop new things that solve problems that people have not only now, but will have in the future. Usually the way to solve problems is through new technology, but it is not the only way. Another fundamental difference with our labs is a system we developed called narrative-driven innovation. There is a science, a process, and rigor to the system. We hire professional, published science fiction writers, give them our marketing research and trend data, work with them to sift through the probable convergences of tech and people trends, and then they create a story with characters, conflict, and a narrative arc. We turn those stories into comic books, and these are what we think of as our strategic documents for the future. Next, I give the comic books or product to our CEO and his direct staff, and they use them to tell me what to build.

High: Please briefly describe the form of the comics and how the story unfolds.

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