May 7

Innovation in action – Zappos

To describe Zappos as a seller of shoes would be somewhat akin to calling Michelangelo a painter and decorator. With ten core values, which range from ‘Deliver WOW Through Service’ to ‘Be Humble’ the Zappos way is widely cited as an example of outstanding company culture, innovation and employee engagement. So much so that Zappos has now expanded its offering to include ‘Boot camps,’ showing other leaders how they can learn from the Zappos experience.

Some may point to the company as an anomaly, an organisation whose whimsical weirdness could only work in the world of fashion, however my ‘Innovation in Action’ series of blogs will expose more organisations that act and behave in similar ways. But whilst it is true that not every organisation could run with the full Zappos model, it is equally true that every organisation can learn from the way that Zappos has shaped its organisation to meet its core mission of ‘providing the best customer service possible.’

This mission has resulted in a focus on employee engagement, on putting the customer first and on innovation, specifically in terms of experience. But despite all of the attention-grabbing headlines, creating a strongly innovative culture is not the same as creating anarchy. So whilst fun, weirdness and adventure sit within the core values, the code of conduct includes more traditional sections such as integrity, confidentiality and honesty. And whilst Zappos has announced that it is getting rid of hierarchy in favour of holocracy, this too is subject to rules, structure and process in order for it to work effectively.

I’ve often written about the pathways to innovation, the importance of mapping the journey from innovation strategy via innovation leadership and innovation culture towards innovation capability. And I’ve stressed that although innovation is not rocket science the journey can be challenging for those who are moving from a silo and rule bound hierarchy into a more open and outward facing culture. When mapping this transformation it is important to look for ‘quick wins,’ for mile post successes along the way, which encourage and enthuse. Some elements of parallel running may also be required to enable the organisation to move smoothly and seamlessly towards full innovation.

But make no mistake; whether you fully embrace a culture of fun or seek to preserve a more staid image, the one thing, which will differentiate your business from all the rest, is the way in which you embrace innovation as a means to drive differentiation, growth and providing amazing customer experiences. Some of the original Zappos ideas such as free returns and free delivery have easily be matched by other sales organisations but it is only when these are backed up by outstanding service allied to committed employees that a business can start to showcase ‘how’ it delivers rather than ‘what’ it delivers And to make sure that the ‘how’ stands out, all new Zappos employees, no matter at what level, start with a four week orientation process which includes manning the phones and dealing with sales and returns At the end of that time, provided they have lasted the course, prospective employees are offered the alternatives of choosing a job or taking a cash sum to leave. This two-way process means that not only is Zappos hiring employees for cultural fit but the employees are choosing the company for the same reason.

Innovation action point…

Innovative, engaged, and soon to be holocratic; the Zappos way is not for everyone. But it has resulted in low staff churn, loyal, returning customers and a fair amount of business arriving through recommendations. As CEO Tony Hsieh says;

“your culture is your brand. Customer service shouldn’t just be a department; it should be the entire company.”

If you’d like to find out more about Zappos visit their website at and scroll down to the bottom where you’ll find a link to ‘About Zappos’ which will give you an insight into some of the things I’ve outlined above.

Everyone says they want or need to drive innovation but few actually do. If you want to be one of the few and you’ve got a question, ask Cris on or visit for more information.


Culture, Customer Experience, Differentiation, Employee Engagement, Innovation Culture

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