How H&M Group Uses Workshops to Innovate

Find out how H&M uses workshops to foster an innovation culture and produce tangible outcomes. Read on for our interview with Dan Cariño, Product Designer at H&M Group.

‘Innovate or die!’– chances are, regardless of your current position or industry, you’ve heard this phrase thrown around. And while the prospect of innovation might sound exciting and promising, the concept may also feel elusive. 

What does corporate innovation mean in tangible terms? And how do you execute innovation so that it actually works?

Here at AJ&Smart we’re strong believers that execution trumps ‘cool’ ideas any day of the week, which is why we love hearing real-life stories of teams who are implementing innovation in their organizations. 

So you can imagine how excited we were to hear that H&M Group is using workshops to help them drive innovation. We caught up with Dan Cariño, Product Designer at H&M Group, and asked him about the benefits of a workshop culture, the projects H&M Group uses workshops for, and how to get started with facilitating your own workshops!

Hi Dan! Being a Product Designer and working with such a household name like H&M Group is a dream for many in our audience. Can you tell us what your job entails, how you started at H&M Group, and how is it different from H&M, a brand we all know and love?

Dan: H&M Group is a family of several brands. I think most people know H&M, but we also have brands like COS, Weekday, MONKI, H&M Home, & other Stories, ARKET and Afound in our portfolio. 

I actually applied for the position at H&M Group just for fun: I didn’t think I would hear back from them, but… I did! So even though I was living and working in Hong Kong at the time, and wanted to stay abroad, the opportunity was just too good to pass up. I grew up with the brand, and I knew the company was undergoing a really exciting digital transformation from the Waterfall system to Agile, so I wanted to be part of that.

How H&M group uses workshops to innovate
Photo by Leon on Unsplash

I joined the H&M Group in August 2020 as part of the product design function within Business Tech–the innovation function of the company. I worked with the Digital Checkout team for the first 4 months, and later switched to a team in the Innovation & Incubation function. 

Currently, I and my product team are working on an exciting new product that will help introduce circular business models to the H&M Group. I can’t give away too much just yet, but you might hear more about this project soon! 

Joining the company while they switch from the Waterfall system to Agile is surely exciting! Can you tell us a bit more about how it changed the way collaboration happens within the teams?

Dan: One of the biggest most obvious changes is that by moving to Agile, we switched from siloed teams to cross-functional ones. So instead of developers, designers, and business division working on parts of the product in isolation, we operate in cross-functional teams, usually  consisting of a Product Owner, Lead Developer, Product Designer, Data Analyst and Quality Assurance.

We have regular Agile ceremonies to make sure we are in sync with each other, and we also make good use of workshops to make sure we are 100% aligned.

How are workshops integrated into your everyday work? How often do you run them? And who usually takes part in them?

Dan: It really depends on the team. For example, in the Digital Checkout team, we would run bi-weekly retrospective workshops at the end of every Agile Sprint, and longer, more complex workshops focussed on a bigger challenge (like the usability of the website, or the customer journey) every other month or so. 

However, in the Innovation team, we run workshops almost on a weekly basis. We're in the starting phase of the circular business product that I mentioned earlier, and we need to make sure that we're 100% aligned and have a wide pool of ideas for all the challenges we're working on. 

So to summarize, it really differs depending on which product team you're in: some teams are more focussed on innovation, and thereby run more workshops, and other teams are more focussed on development. 

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Wow, that's an impressive cadency, you guys are the real Workshoppers! Can you tell us a bit more about how you select the right kind of workshop for the challenges you’re working on? 

Dan: My personal go-to for solving smaller challenges is the Lightning Decision Jam (LDJ).  We recently used it with the team to come up with a pool of ideas for attracting more top talent to the H&M Group. The workshop is quite simple and straight-forward,  so after just 1 hour we got a prioritized list of ideas we could start executing on. Just some of the ideas that we came up with included starting a design blog, which we are in the process of creating, and start promoting H&M Group on social media to make sure our target candidates know we have dedicated digital designers. 

AN example of the Lightning Decision Jam Workshop
AJ&Smart team in a remote LDJ workshop

However,  if we need to tackle a more complex challenge, I'd usually design a custom workshop, using the workshop building framework I learned from The Workshopper Playbook. It's hard to find a cookie-cutter workshop that fits every purpose universally, so being able to create custom workshops is quite cool and useful.

How do you pick the right team to join the workshop? Do you have a rule of thumb you always follow? 

Dan: This greatly depends on the problem we're trying to solve. For example, when we were tackling the challenge of attracting top talent I mentioned earlier, we only had designers in the room. Inviting designers felt the most relevant and we wanted to be quick in finding a solution to the challenge. 

But for more complex problems, like deciding on the next steps for a product, we'd make sure to bring together a cross-functional team and include roles that represent designer, business, and tech perspectives. The most important rule, however, is to always have a Decider attend your workshop to make sure the outcomes actually get executed on. 

How do you like to prepare before your workshops to ensure maximum efficiency?

Dan: I usually plan out a rough structure of the workshop a few days before and then just let it marinate in my brain. Leaving enough time for yourself to process, think over, and consolidate the workshop structure is essential, because a lot of times the best ideas for your workshop come when you’re not deliberately planning it.  

What are some of  the ground rules for your workshops?

Dan: Normally we'd have a no-device rule, which is difficult in the current reality as we all work remotely. 

As for the rules we can still implement, I  always make sure to remind the workshop participants that we're not supposed to be 100% accurate in a workshop. A lot of people can get hung up on getting everything just right and perfect. But workshops are about getting started, moving fast, generating ideas, and testing them–that's really how we can learn what works and what doesn’t. 

Another rule for our workshops is that we always work 'together alone'. The real benefit of having a lot of people come together in a workshop is that you can get a wide spread of opinions and long as people don't bias each other. Working in a ‘together alone’ fashion is the easiest way to avoid that bias: we ideate individually so that the thoughts and ideas of each team member aren’t affected by what their peers think. 

You mentioned that you don't need to be accurate or precise during a workshop. In our experience here at AJ&Smart, it's hard for teams to really embrace this mindset. Do you have any facilitation tips on how to make your participants comfortable with this inaccuracy and the fast-paced tempo of workshops? 

Dan: As a facilitator, you need to handle your participants’ expectations and offer them some reassurance to put them at ease with the pace of the workshop. Mention that workshops are fast-paced and messy in the beginning, and don’t forget to reassure your participants as the workshop moves along by saying things like:

Don't think too much about it. Just write whatever in your mind. 

We will be prioritizing things later. 

Just write the first thing that comes to mind, and the good ideas will follow. 

What is the best outcome of a workshop you ran?

Dan: One of the best outcomes of a workshop I ran so far was gaining clarity and defining concrete next steps for the big circular business project I mentioned earlier. 

When I started in the Innovation team, we weren't really sure how to tackle this huge project. There were so many assumptions to test and it was really unclear how we should structure our work. I suggested running a workshop to the Product Owner to help us test some hypotheses and assumptions, and they agreed! 

By the end of the workshop, we knew exactly which hypothesis to focus on this coming quarter. This allowed us to gain clarity and hyperfocus on specific activities that are going to bring us closer to our goal. 

That’s an amazing result! Knowing where to focus the majority of your team’s efforts eliminates so much busywork! On the flip side, have you ever been in a workshop that was a complete failure? And what did you learn from that? 

Dan: Definitely!

I'm a part of the environmental design task group at H&M Group, and we were looking for ways to empower designers to create things sustainably. I and the team weren't really sure what our exact goals should be, so I suggested running a workshop to define them.

I searched online to see which workshop recipe could be a good fit for the challenge, and stumbled upon Team Canvas. I was at capacity that week, I didn't have enough time to prepare thoroughly... When the time came to run the workshop, I tried to wing it the best I could. But because I didn't really get to the core of what Team Canvas was, I didn’t realise until the workshop was in full swing that the process itself wasn't fully aligned with what we wanted to solve. 

A workshop board filled with sticky notes
Photo by Daria Nepriakhina on Unsplash

We ended up stalling in one section because that was quite interesting to the team members. And I wasn't sure whether or not I should stop or continue with the workshop. The whole thing ended up with a workshop that wasn't complete, basically. 

My biggest takeaway from that–always do your prep work!

Since you’ve been in so many workshops already, do you have a list of DOs and DON'Ts for running a successful workshop? 

Dan: As for the DOs...

  • Prepare thoroughly!
  • Make sure everyone knows what the workshop is about and what the outcome is so that they can properly prioritize it. 
  • Properly onboard your workshop team to the tools you’ll be using, and make sure they’re comfortable with them. 

As for the DON'Ts…

  • Don't get stuck in circular discussions. The point of a workshop is to really get to the outcome. And if you fail to do that, then you kind of lose credibility as a facilitator, and your workshop just won't be as effective. 

Nipping circular discussions in the bud is definitely one of the most important facilitation skills! Speaking of which, how did you learn how to facilitate? Can you recommend any resources to novice workshoppers?

Dan: I first started learning about workshops and facilitation by watching AJ&Smart’s YouTube channel, listening to the Jake and Jonathan Podcast, and reading the Workshopper Playbook and Sprint. However, until I got a chance to put my skills into practice in a real-life setting, I was definitely lacking the necessary confidence. 

My biggest recommendation would be to get out there and practice facilitation. Workshops can seem  complicated (and they can be) from the outside, so you need to see and experience them first-hand.

And don’t give up if you don’t have the opportunity to facilitate a workshop in a business setting, get creative!  I ran a workshop with my family to get that initial  practice in. I ran an LDJ on what we could do as a household to feel happier. We had great outcomes from the workshop as well! 

The bottom line is: no matter how much you read or prepare, you need to get that practice in to really feel confident.  There are so many small tips and tricks that you will only see and understand once you have  run a workshop. Go out there and get that practice in. And after you have, take the time to reflect on how the workshop went to see how you can improve. 

Practice really does make perfect! What would you advise to people who might be reading this now, who are currently at a more junior level, and don't know how to convince their boss or team about running a workshop, or letting them be the facilitator of that workshop? 

Dan: My best advice would be to try and replace a regular meeting with a Lightning Decision Jam.

One very common objection is that workshops take up too much time, but the LDJ can be done in under one hour, and can easily replace a meeting you usually have. So look for a brainstorming meeting or a decision-making meeting and suggest replacing it with an LDJ.

The way you can make your team feel comfortable with you facilitating is by reframing your offer from 'I want to run a workshop' to 'I will organize everything and this won't require any extra work for you’

Present this as a test, something low-investment and low-effort to the team, and make sure to overdeliver so that they're convinced of the power of workshops. 

So after all of the whiteboards are wiped clean, what do you do to make sure the things you worked on actually get executed on? And how do you balance the workshop way of working with your normal responsibilities?

Dan: Ensuring solid outcomes is all about committing to the learnings from your workshop. It's important to break down what you're going to do into manageable, actionable next steps. Jot those things down and appoint a responsible person for each item. Including accountability will ensure these things get executed on instead of just staying in the idea phase. 

Find Dan on LinkedIn and Instagram and see all the great things H&M Group is up to here.

Anastasia Ushakova

Brand Strategist, Digital Marketer, and a Workshopper.