The 'Messy' Side of Innovation

Starbucks shares the "messy" details of innovation done the private-sector way -- but could such an approach in government yield results?

by / March 25, 2013

Innovation is a hot topic in government these days -- state and local jurisdictions are hiring chief innovation officers, and innovation councils are popping up around the nation. The overall goal? To fuel efficiency and interagency collaboration, and deliver impactful citizen services in the public sector.

But as the private sector is learning, innovation isn't always easy. In fact, it can be quite messy.

Take coffee giant Starbucks, for instance. In summer 2012, the company made a wide-ranging agreement with mobile payment company Square, which would handle Starbucks' debit and credit card processing, Fast Company reported. In November of last year, the 7,000 Starbucks stores nationwide began accepting mobile payments through Square's Mobile Wallet.

But using this payment method has caused some trouble, according to Fast Company. Though a handful of locations had no problem with Square's Mobile Wallet, most experiences were "awkward, buggy and inconsistent."

Part of the problem? The baristas, and even some store managers, lacked proper training on the service -- they were almost as confused about how the system worked as the customers were.

But when introducing a new platform at such a large scale, mistakes are bound to occur, say Starbucks Chief Digital Officer Adam Brotman and Payments VP Ryan Records. 

Another potential source of confusion is that the Square solution is similar to the mobile payment option in Starbucks' own mobile app, and baristas weren't trained to know that accepting mobile payments, whether through Square or the company's own app, was essentially the same -- and that's something Brotman says the company is currently working on. 

Scanner calibration issues also may have affected Square Wallet payments, and the fact that company-owned stores -- so 70 percent of Starbucks' shops -- accept Square payments while the licensed stores (Starbucks in your local grocery store, for example) do not is another source of confusion for patrons. 

"When it comes to our current mobile payment process, including our rewards process, it's not 1,000 percent consistent across every single one of our Starbucks stores, whether licensed or company owned, and that's something that we're not OK with," Brotman said. "It's a challenge we take very seriously."

Starbucks went through a similar issue before, said Payments VP Records, noting the launch of the company's mobile payments -- and it spent the first few months figuring out how to fix everything.

"We were solving one [problem] after another, and we probably had more misses than hits before we reached a tipping point," he told Fast Company. "But then it became seamless, and it became flawless, and it really became an elegant way to pay."

The approach is similar to that of software updates from Windows, Office or Word -- and it's one that Brotman notes isn't always the most stress-free. But it's something the company is willing to do. 

"We don't want to wait on innovation," Brotman told Fast Company. "Because if we waited until we could make it perfect across every single experience of every single store, we would have to move much more slowly for the vast majority of our customers. So we've taken an approach that's not always perfect, but we think it's the best thing for our brand and customers."

Whether such an approach is feasible in the public sector is of question, given that taxpayer dollars would be used to fix problems created from a seemingly haphazard implementation. But if this approach was taken in government, could solutions be found more quickly, therefore making seamless and flawless transactions within government -- and between government and constituents -- more common?

Photo by Tupungato /

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