Rules of Innovation From a Wal-Mart Pro

Last Updated Jun 17, 2008 5:11 PM EDT

When Wal-Mart launched its in-store health care clinics in 2005,
Alicia Ledlie went from co-manager of a store in Uniondale,
Long Island, to senior director for health business development. Ledlie
first heard about the new venture at a conference at Wal-Mart HQ. She
immediately applied for a job with the clinic start-up team, and a month later
she moved to Bentonville, Ark., to join the experimental project. (To learn
more about her involvement in the launch, see " href="http://www.bnet.com/">How They Did It: Seven Intrapreneur Success Stories.")

The project represents a revolutionary concept: Wal-Mart
partners with local hospitals and health-care providers to run independent
clinics within Wal-Mart stores. Clinics are open seven days a week, and hours
include nights and weekends. Under Ledlie's direction, Wal-Mart has
opened 79 in-store clinics in 12 states, and it has plans to add as many as
2,000 such clinics in the next five to seven years.

Here are Ledlie's top tips for folks who want to
move the companies they work for into new frontiers:


1. Exploit Your Company’s Competitive Advantages


“You really need to know how
your company is uniquely suited to succeed in this endeavor,” Ledlie
says. “Once you’ve thought it through, it can sell itself.”
In Wal-Mart’s case, the first advantage was size. Rather than crowding clinics in a corner, the company’s
megastores were able to accommodate them up front, near the check-out areas,
and still have enough space for examinations and common lab tests.


The second advantage,
Ledlie says, was the retailer’s variety of merchandise. “After
a customer visits the clinic for a sore throat, he can shop the rest of
the store for a carton of orange juice, an extra blanket, and throat lozenges,
saving time and simplifying his life.”


2. Enlist Key Supporters at the Top


To ensure success, you need more than
a green light from those in charge: You need passionate supporters in
management who believe in what you’re doing. Once you’ve
identified top-level allies, Ledlie says, make a constant effort to foster
them. Keep them updated on your project’s progress so they feel
empowered with the latest information and can better champion your cause to
others.


But be sure to keep them in the loop
on problems, too. “Don’t sugar-coat setbacks or obstacles
to your champion, or it could make you both look foolish,” she says. “Everyone
knows you need powerful allies, but it’s just as important to
understand how to keep them.” Ledlie
said she sends email updates on her project’s progress to C-level
executives, and she circulates summary documents with answers to FAQs to keep
everyone up to speed and invested in the project’s success.


3. Recruit Allies in Other Departments


In addition to friends in high places,
you’ll also benefit from alliances in mid- and entry-level positions,
where people develop valuable specialized knowledge. When you’re
refining product features or developing a business plan, look to people in
other departments for ideas and feedback. Ledlie says some of the suggestions
she found most helpful came from folks in the legal and finance departments —
and at Wal-Mart subsidiary Sam’s Club. “When you get people
excited about your idea, you’ll be surprised to find out that someone
from a seemingly random department might hold the key to unlocking the
potential of your business,” she says. “Sometimes it’s
as easy as letting them know what you’re doing.”



4. Look Beyond Quantifiable Metrics


A big part of intrapreneuring is
selling your idea up the management chain — and then convincing those
in charge that you’re meeting your goals. Ledlie says one of the most
powerful moves you can make is deciding what your variables for success are and
understanding how to gather data to fulfill those metrics. Most of us get
information from market research and customer surveys, but another source that’s
just as powerful — if not more so — is anecdotal. “There
is no more powerful way to communicate why your idea is an improvement than to
use the words of a customer or employee who is clamoring for it,” she
says.


Don’t lose sight of your
quantifiable goals, of course; they will tell you how you’re
going to achieve what you set out to do. “But if you keep the words
of your customers in the front of your mind,” Ledlie says, “you
won’t lose sight of the who and the why of what you’re
doing.”