One Year In, Canadian Tire Innovations is Blossoming

Venturing into unknown territory is risky, but Canadian Tire Innovations (CTi) packed wisely for the journey it has taken over the last 12 months.

When Craig Haney launched CTi in the Communitech Hub last year, a lot of confused looks were directed at him and his team as they occupied a small, 500-square-foot space. Aside from raised eyebrows at the fact that a traditional retailer had become a Hub tenant, co-op students weren’t exactly jumping at the chance to join CTi’s software design team and add a Canadian Tire logo to their resumes.

A year later, it’s a different story.

“We’re now going from struggling to get enough applications in for our co-ops, to having hundreds of applications into our co-ops after only three terms,” says Haney, manager of CTi. “We’re getting applications all the way from Alberta and as far east as Halifax.”

CTi is changing is the conversation around the way large, non-tech companies look at innovation and organizations like Communitech. Haney is now building another Canadian Tire team at an advanced gamification and digital media centre in Winnipeg, where the company opened a large data centre in February.

The opportunity in Winnipeg wouldn’t have been possible without CTi’s success at the Hub, which has made a significant impact on the company in a short time.

“They wanted to see if they could replicate that to some degree in a different frame of reference…the culture of speed and agility; of high-quality proof of concepts,” Haney says.

The new team in Winnipeg will employ 30 people to be hired over the next 18 months, “from web app developers, to user-experience designers, to content creators, to behavioural scientists,” he says.

Those 30 people, like the team in the Hub, will not be confined to some box of an office. “If I put 35 cubicles in Winnipeg and told them to be innovative, they would bang their heads against the wall,” Haney says. “You need to have inspiring space.”

Space isn’t the only factor behind successful innovation, he adds. “You need to have people who can embrace the complexity and ambiguity of innovation,” he says, adding, “you need projects that are inspiring and that people can get their heads wrapped around.”

He applies these concepts to the full-time team of four and the half-dozen co-ops working in CTi’s Hub space. “There are no name plates; there are no chairs for people to sit on that are theirs,” Haney says. “If you spend too many days in the same chair, we’ll kick you out and move you to another spot.”

His thinking is that changing physical positions helps people to see problems from different perspectives.

The problem Haney’s team is solving is how to integrate how customers behave in Canadian Tire stores into digital tools to improve the experience. As he explains, “If we can leverage digital to make bricks and mortar more contextually relevant to you on every visit, then we’re going to win the retail game.”

Lending a helping hand are their neighbours at the Communitech Hub. “The ecosystem here is great; they have everything from big companies like Google or BlackBerry, who can help us solve Android and BlackBerry problems on site,” Haney says.

Communitech’s Apps Factory played a part when CTi was setting up. “Apps Factory helped us to understand how to effectively onboard and utilize young talent to develop mobile applications,” he says.

But CTi is also paying it forward to the smaller companies. “Even if we don’t buy their product or service, we can be a very early user of their products and help break them and then fix it and make it stronger,” Haney says.

He understands the important role he and his small team play in a multibillion-dollar company that has locations within 15 minutes of 90 per cent of the Canadian population. “We are innovators, not necessarily inventors, but we can have a significant amount of impact in being innovators within Canadian Tire.”

And awareness is increasing across the company even with the big spatial divide, or as Haney puts it, “a 120-kilometre moat between Canadian Tire corporate and Kitchener…or a slow drive down the 401. The space provides an opportunity to be creative.”

It can be an uphill battle to drive innovative thinking in a 92-year-old company. The approach is small, but the thinking is big.

“Proof of concept that [an idea] can work in one small little world might influence two or three decisions later on that could change the world for Canadian Tire,” he says.

And it’s not the number of applications produced that defines success for the team. “The way we can change and motivate as a catalyst for future thinking is absolutely where we will be measured on success,” Haney says.

It’s only been a year since Canadian Tire took a chance and went all-in on innovation, but this is only the beginning, he says.

“I think you will see innovation in Canadian Tire will broaden its mandate over the next few years, from building web apps and mobile apps to extended digital infrastructure of Canadian Tire, to influencing how people address, identify and take advantage of problems and opportunities in the entire ecosystem.”

This article was originally published on Communitech.