How Ingka Group CTO Susan Standiford is Using Tech to Help IKEA Achieve its Mission to Make People’s Lives Better

Episode 109

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Susan Standiford says she was born to be in technology. And if you look at her resume, the proof that she lived out her life mission is right there in black and white. From a stint as VP of Technology at Disney Interactive to leading the tech team at Travelocity to her current role as CTO Ingka Group, the strategic partner in the IKEA franchise system. Susan has been on the front lines of every kind of digital transformation. 

On this episode of IT Visionaries, Susan discusses how she’s been able to build an employee experience centered around innovation, and she explains what it means to be an inspirational leader. 

Best Advice: It’s not about the tech most of the time — it’s about the people. Find people who will speak truth to power and talk to you straight. That’s far more valuable than anything else. Unless you’re a one- or two-person company, you are not the center of the universe. You need to scale and encourage others.”

Key Takeaways:

  • Defining the role of CTO at Ingka Group
  • Where will AR and VR fit in?
  • How to build an employee experience around innovation
  • Mentorship in the start-up world

Susan’s start in tech 

When it comes to Susan’s history with tech and where her interest started, she uses the words of Lady Gaga to explain it, “I was born this way,” she says. Susan’s father was a historian and journalist and her mother was a physicist, scientist, and mathematician, which meant that Susan grew up in a computer lab and with an innate curiosity for technology.

The CTO role at Ingka Group

IKEA has been in business for more than 75 years and has always been at the forefront of innovation. In order to keep that legacy of innovation alive, there has recently been a focus on the digital strategy. The role of CTO is a new one for IKEA, and Susan says that it was set up to support the digital strategy, which in turn supports the company strategy. Because of how entrenched in the technology and strategy decisions the CTO is, Susan says that the role is a massive one at IKEA. But as is the trend, the CTO role at IKEA is slightly different than other companies. So you have to drive innovation and strategy differently at IKEA than you would at another company. Susan is learning as she goes, but is excited to be part of a digital transformation throughout IKEA.

The digital and tech transformation is not about turning IKEA into a tech company, though. It’s still about bringing a better experience in life for everyday people. So the question Susan and her staff has to ask is, ‘How do you take digital capabilities and empower all things that are IKEA?’ Tech is a weapon of good and can be used to significantly amplify the IKEA mission and answer that question.

“I don’t think there’s any CTO job that fits neatly into any box on assembly. It’s a new position — the entire digital group is new at IKEA and it’s part of a massive transformation that we’re doing at the company. So it’s bringing whole new ways of viewing things together. So driving the product mindset and a technology innovation mindset is something that is an extension of the IKEA innovation mindset, but is new in the digital sense. So I know that there’s definitely some assembly required and not all of the instructions came with the manual as it were.”

“How do you take technology, digital capabilities, modern ways of thinking about tech in that space and how do you empower all of those good things that are IKEA? And if you think about it as what I would consider a weapon of good, there’s some incredible opportunity here to significantly amplify the way we are able to meet our customers where they are. That’s the way I think about it. And you know, that entire digital mission is around not just creating an e-commerce channel — that’s table stakes, right? The point here is to actually empower everything.”

What does IT and the employee experience look like at IKEA?

At IKEA, there are product development teams, with leads in every category from product to tech. Data is a huge part of everything IKEA does and it will play a role in how all employees do their jobs. IKEA has decades of data at its disposal and more customer data is coming in every day. Customer touchpoints range from online to physical and in-store and it’s all about bridging those touchpoints to create a good, simple experience no matter where you are interacting with them. The team is using technology, data and analytics to create those experiences. 

The role of AR and VR 

Susan believes that AR and VR will change the way people shop. In fact, in many ways they already do. IKEA has a new app that does object detection and placement tools using AR so that customers can see where a piece of furniture will fit in their homes before actually buying it. Everyone is trying to make the visualization real and creating an experience for the customers that allows them to be practical. People are trying to take the AR/VR/MR world from a solution looking for a problem to technology that can be used in a really practical way. 

“One of the most common ideas and functional areas that I see is people trying to figure out how to take the AR, VR and the mixed reality world as well and turn that from essentially a solution looking for a problem into a practical reality. And you’re seeing a lot of really interesting stuff starting to come up right now. And there’s a complexity not just in 3D objects, but real 3D objects in space and then making them interact with other 3D objects. That is going to get better and better with technology and with better compute power essentially.”

Empowering employee innovation

IKEA is always looking at outcomes and results, which are aimed at fulfilling the mission of creating a better life for everyday people. To do that, IKEA employees aren’t sitting in labs, they’re building and testing things in-store and online to gauge how customers react.

We’re not trying to just create things in a lab, we’re testing things out in stores and with real people. There is a co-worker app team thinking about 3D visualization and applying it to actual purchasing behaviors.”

Susan firmly believes in innovation every day. Everything changes and it’s your ability to be fast and flexible and adaptable. For example, if you build a culture around delivery innovations and then say you’re done, that won’t work. You have to keep innovating on top of that. Susan asks herself, “How can we think about innovation every day?” And she believes there are a few different ways to go about that. One is through optimization and constant improvements. Another is looking for gaps that you can fill or automate. Then there is a forward-looking focus and looking for category killers. You have to think about what is going to disrupt you, not just about how you can disrupt. How can you harness those things and find a way to disrupt yourself? If you have that kind of mindset and spread it throughout your organization, you’ll be able to have a culture where innovation happens regularly.

Susan’s involvement in the start-up community

Susan has been a mentor and advisor for a number of accelerators and incubators. She calls the experience “delightful.” 

“I’ve been in the industry for over 20 years. I’ve done a lot of different things. I started off as a data nerd and a tech nerd in a program. And I did all of these incredible things. I’ve worked for incredible companies. I’ve succeeded and failed and done lots of different things. I say that not because I’m bragging about what I’ve done, but what I have found is that I love mentoring and coaching…. It was super rewarding for me because I felt like I was able to give, and I give as much as I get…. I absolutely adore being able to work with young companies. You know, newly-minted CTOs and CEOs who have great ideas. I love ideating around products and ideas and I just find that incredibly fresh and invigorating and energetic for me.”

Past work at Disney and Travelocity

Susan’s past experience is impressive, with stints at both Disney and Travelocity. Disney was interesting back when Susan was VP of technology because the big innovation around content was with the Disney Channel. Originally it was going to be a landing spot for old content, but it became a space for originals. It became finding a way to get the digital part of Disney away from being just a marketing display and turning it into a content creator that could produce value on its own. 

Why move to IKEA?

Susan was planning to just do board work and do advising for companies, but got a call to talk about an opportunity at IKEA. She started to realize how amazing the company was and how much she related to the values. IKEA truly lives the values and that is an attractive idea to be a part of. The drive toward innovation was also right there. The assets the company has are also incredible, from wind farms to supply chain thinking and onward, the assets make it possible to innovate. The opportunity was too good to turn down, so Susan jumped and then had to figure out how to handle her initial few months as CTO.

She explains that there is always a concept of a 100-day plan when you can break problems down. You spend ⅓ of the time just listening and absorbing all the information you can. Then you formulate a plan and come up with ways to attack problems and amplify strengths. Then you put the plan into action whether it’s hiring, a new organization design or bringing in new tech. 

Susan’s mentorship style

Situational leadership is important, Susan says, and you get that kind of experience the more experience you have. Susan is a lifelong learner always looking for more tools for the tool bag. Inspirational leadership and coaching is her style. You want to bring out someone’s authentic self and you do that by inspiring and guiding, then find a way to mentor them through feedback. You can get people to accomplish a lot and grow. Look for five characteristics in leaders: being smart, get shit done, fight through ambiguity, have grit, you care about making others better, humility. You have to be curious and spend a lot of time looking for and giving feedback. 

In the hiring process, she spends a lot of time asking questions to probe how they go about solving problems and trying to find examples of resilience. You can find openness in people through these questions and get a sense of the person’s ego when you dig into those areas. 

“I really focus on inspirational leadership and coaching and mentoring. I’m a big fan of empowering teams, setting goals and outcomes and strategies that we want to accomplish. It’s really about getting people to bring their authentic self and their own capabilities and their great ideas and their own world [to life]. And I think you do that by providing that inspiration, a little bit of guiding and then you put together coaching and feedback as much as you possibly can so that you can help guide people in that space and create a situation of trust where you can both listen to feedback but also give feedback. I think you get people to really accomplish a lot and then they can grow. I think that’s super important.”

What has been most surprising?

One of the things that has surprised Susan throughout her career is that many people in her position are trying to solve a lot of the same problems. The implementation of solutions has been different, though. She also notes that social psychology problems are harder than tech problems. Getting people to move is the hardest thing to do so she’s been surprised by how she’s had to lead adoption processes. 

“A simple tech solution that, or even a hard tech solution has to be done with social psychology and through empowering inspiring people.”

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Susan Standiford, CTO of Ingka Group, joins IT Visionaries to discuss creating a culture of innovation where the main goal is making people’s lives better.

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