Interview with an Innovator: Gap's Michael Perman on Wearable Tech

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Written BY

Emily Friedman

March 24, 2016

From first-class physicians to innovation seekers in industry, we give you insight into the experiences of those pioneering the use of wearables in the workplace–in their own words.

We recently sent over some questions to Michael Perman, Dean of Innovation at a little well-known retail brand called Gap. Read his answers below, and catch his presentation “C’est what? Leveraging Mindful Design for Innovation” at EWTS East in Atlanta this June.

BrainXchange (Q): To begin, how about you provide us with a little background on yourself and your career. What exactly does the Dean of Innovation at Gap do, and how/when did you first learn about (or encounter) wearable technology?

Michael Perman (A): As Dean of Innovation, my charter has been to build capacity and capability for innovation to happen. My goals have been to 1) establish a culture of creativity and invention, 2) embed systematic and repeatable methods for innovation to happen and 3) help teams define the problem they should be solving through insights about customers. So, my role has been as much a capability-builder as a catalyst for innovation to thrive.

BrainXchange (Q): What is Gap’s Mindspark Innovation Program?

Michael Perman (A): Mindspark has been our internal brand of innovation. It’s a series of methods that enable individuals and teams to drive innovation from “fuzzy to fruition.” There’s usually plenty of ideas out there among teams. The real challenge is bringing those to fruition. That takes tenacity, courage, skill, and creativity as well as empathy for the people who need to drive innovation – often who don’t have time. So, we developed a comprehensive system of strategic workshops, insights, leadership training, trend forecasting, and co-creation to make innovation a reality.

BrainXchange (Q): When did it become apparent to you that wearable tech might somehow improve Gap’s business? How are you approaching wearable technology (in the Mindspark Program)?

Michael Perman (A): Actually, the path forward for innovation on wearables is still emerging. Wearable technology became a fashion item back when people were wearing Bluetooth head-phones that signaled either cool or nerdy. Then Nike established new norms with their FuelBand and consumers began to pay attention to the intersections of fashion and function. Now, countless brands are into this, providing service in health, communication, navigation, social contact, shopping and performance. There’s a beautiful merge of fashion and function happening and a lot of experiments. This is a time to try new things, listen and learn.

BrainXchange (Q): In what ways are you exploring this new wave of mobile tech at Gap, and to what end?

Michael Perman (A): Gap is making significant progress with its performance wear business and there’s potentially a natural fit there. But, we’re just observing how the market is shaping up and where consumers are truly deriving value from wearables. From a shopping perspective, there might be opportunities to make purchasing more convenient, such as Disney’s MagicBand. But, since many personal devices are expanding the range of services provided in single devices, the utility of specific wearable devices to master unique functions is still in flux.

BrainXchange (Q): In what ways might Gap employees utilize wearable devices to work better, faster, or safer? In which areas of Gap’s business/operations might wearable technology play a role?

Michael Perman (A): Our store associates might benefit from anything that enables them to provide more efficient and effective service to customers, especially when it enables us to reduce our store inventory or expedite the sales transaction. There’s probably a role in supply chain and logistics if there were tools that enable a more clear view of product inventory and location on an immediate and mobile basis.

BrainXchange (Q): How do you orchestrate innovation with emerging technologies? How might Gap innovate with wearables?

Michael Perman (A): Innovation is the ability to perceive alternative reality and the courage to move toward that vision. Any significant form of innovation that drives new revenue streams or changes behavior fits with that axiom. So, emerging technologies also work that way. The key is being flexible and fluid with experiments and being in a mode of continuous learning.  I’m not sure that wearables specifically expedite that process but that process may expedite breakthroughs in wearables.

BrainXchange (Q): What is “mindful design,” and how does wearable tech factor in?

Michael Perman (A): Mindful design is the next level of design-thinking. It’s based on revealing insights to three simple probes: 1) what do people crave, 2) what concerns them, and 3) what brings them comfort? In an organizational setting, those three inquiries are related to neurotransmitters of dopamine, cortisol and oxytocin respectively. Mindful design places your brain in the proper mode to perceive these alternative realities and create what’s new based on what’s most important to your customers and how they think/feel. This provides a wonderful opportunity to co-create with customers and be totally, holistically connected to the way they think.

BrainXchange (Q): What would be your advice to retailers evaluating emerging technologies like wearables? How do you see wearable technology transforming the retail industry in the next 3-5 years?

Michael Perman (A): My advice is to avoid chasing shiny objects. Identify the innovation task or problem you’re trying to solve before determining that wearables is the solution. Stay focused on what matters to consumer and retail operators. For consumers, they want to emulate the digital experience and see it come to life in a more interesting way in a physical space. Wearables might provide new context to a physical experience. For retail operators, wearables have the potential of making the shopping experience more efficient or providing timely data that improves profit margins and manages inventory. Anything that can keep retail help closer to customers and away from the back room is a good thing.

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