Interview with Steven Bladeni, Head of Labs at Kmart Australia
Posted 2 weeks ago
Impact Innovation’s series of interviews exploring the habits, traits, inspirations, and ambitions of leading innovation professionals.
This month we spoke to Steven Bladeni, Head of Labs at Kmart Australia. Steven recently established the new Innovation Lab at Kmart, a team created to explore and evaluate new concepts to improve the business. Steven told us he’s excited about the way COVID-19 has been a kick in the pants for the retail sector to prioritise their investment in digital, and revealed his favourite online collaboration tools, the books he’s currently reading and how important it is to have an experimental mindset when working in innovation.
What’s your background and how did you find your way to your current role?
I started my career as an Accountant & Management Consultant and spent seven years at KPMG in Australia and the United Kingdom. I moved on to Product Management at Sensis where I was heavily involved in formulating their future product portfolio strategy, evaluating a range of new concepts and digital offerings for the business.
After Sensis, I headed to Australia Post to set up and run an internal Product Incubator, tasked with identifying and launching new products and services.
I spent two years in the start-up sector helping an Australian SportsTech business scale its product offering and enter the US market. When COVID-19 hit the sporting sector pretty hard, I left and moved into my current role as Head of the newly formed Labs at Kmart.
What does your current role involve?
My role at Kmart involves setting up and running a newly formed Innovation Lab which was created to explore and evaluate new concepts for the business.
We focus on medium to long-term opportunities that are aligned to our strategic priorities and we use human-centred design frameworks to evaluate the desirability, feasibility, and viability of these opportunities to determine if they’ve worth progressing.
It’s a new function within the business, so we’re still growing our team – a cross-functional mix including Product, Design and Technology.
Do you have a regular morning routine?
I’m usually up at 6/6.30am wrangling the kids to get ready for school with my wife Anne. Whilst balancing their preparation, I grab a coffee and some fruit for breakfast, while I catch up on emails and the news from overnight.
Family always comes first for me – so once everything is settled and the kids are out the door, I’ll use the first 30 mins of silence to work out what I have on for the day and what I want to achieve.
What is your approach when a project gets stuck or delayed?
I’m a pretty rational and structured person, so when projects get stuck or delayed, I need to get all the facts on the table. I want to know what the issue is, what’s causing it and what are our options? It must be from my consulting days – but the framework of Issue, Impact, Actions & Accountability has been drilled into me.
I like to push the team to think outside the box for innovative solutions that might achieve the outcome we need in a slightly different way.
What program or software would you be lost without at work?
I’m a very visual person. Pre-COVID you would always find me scribbling on a whiteboard or with sticky notes in hand, so now that we’re all online, Miro has been a lifesaver for me.
I rely on Trello for project planning roadmaps, and obviously the trusty Microsoft Teams for video conferencing.
What book, resource or app has recently changed your life?
I’m a big fan of the Strategyzer team, for their work popularising the Business Model canvas and lean experimentation frameworks. I’m currently halfway through their new book “Testing Business Ideas”, which is a great field guide for rapid experimentation.
I’ve also recently worked my way through Larry Keeley’s “Ten Types of Innovation”. I found it fascinating to reflect on how industries have transformed through the use of certain innovation tactics. The book also reinforced a lot that I have learned throughout my career on how to establish and embed an innovative mindset within a large corporate.
Has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? What did you learn?
I’m not afraid to say I’ve had a few failures that have moulded me into the person I am today!
Earlier in my career I received feedback from a certain GM that I didn’t contribute enough value in meetings. Being a bit of an introvert, this was tough, especially in a leadership team with loud voices and a lot of ego. However, I took the feedback on board and worked hard to make sure my voice and opinions could be heard. It’s still a work in progress, but I’ve been lucky to work with some great leaders who realise that sometimes the quietest person in the room has the best ideas.
What is your biggest challenge currently?
Having set up an Innovation Lab before at Australia Post, I know the biggest challenge for any new Lab is always where to start.
There is so much we could do….but the challenge is determining the most effective use of time and resources.
For Kmart, it’s all about finding alignment with business strategy, but we also need to push the boundaries a bit to make sure our work has a long term focus.
Within traditional sectors such as retail and government, challenging the status quo to think differently and consider a long-term view takes some convincing. Starting small and building up some early wins is essential.
What behaviour or habit has most improved your life?
Working in the Innovation space for a while now – I’ve found that having an experimental mindset has changed my whole approach to work and life.
This means getting to the crux of what you need to know in order to make a decision (the riskiest assumption), and then defining the leanest way you can get the insights you need.
If you’re moving fast enough, this can dramatically reduce the cost of failure, which I’ve found is a good way to break down any objections from key stakeholders.
What new technology, start-up or project are you most excited about currently? Why?
I’m really excited about how COVID has given the retail sector the kick in the pants it needed to prioritise its investment in digital.
At Kmart, there’s a huge focus on using data and insights, and we’ve already seen some great ways it can deliver value to the business.
There’s also so much more opportunity to use digital technology in our stores to engage customers, drive revenue growth and improve operational efficiencies. My hope is that the return to a new normal as COVID vaccines are rolled out doesn’t result in retail taking the foot off the accelerator.
How do you stay up to date on industry trends and news?
I also like to take inspiration from other industries with similar challenges. Spending a few years before Kmart in the Sports sector, I see some parallels with how sporting venues (bricks and mortar) are evolving through the use of technology and data to serve and engage its customers, the fans.
What three things do you hope to accomplish this year?
1. Building out the Innovation Lab team and seeding a culture of experimentation at Kmart.
2. Launching a few new concepts that can make a difference to the lives of Kmart customers and/or staff; and
3. Rebuilding connections with family and friends as we return to a post COVID new normal.
You can connect with Steven on LinkedIn