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Role of the project management office in technological innovation

Fail Faster

Episode 441


27 minutes

Nicolas Hien serves as Chief Information Officer at Dollarama where he has the supervisory responsibility over the IT function and the Project Management Office.

Podcast transcript

Khushboo: Hi, Nicholas, welcome to the Fail Faster podcast. How are you today? 

Nicholas: I’m very good. Thank you. 

Khushboo: I’m super excited to have you here today, Nicholas and talk to you about your amazing journey and experience and also some of the topics that we have picked for today’s episode, like you know, the role of project management office and technological innovation, and also the challenges and trends associated with that. Now, before we get into those topics, why don’t we kick it off with your background? So tell us where were you born and raised? What was childhood like? And what are your family dynamics? 

Nicholas: Sure, I was born in Montreal, but I actually lived in France for more than 10 years. When I was young, my sister and I were raised by a single mom, she was a teacher, we had a happy and very normal childhood that was not always easy for her. My sister was very studious, she actually ended up being a doctor. And personally, I was only obsessed with soccer. 

I came back to Canada to study my Bachelor of Business Administration at HEC Montreal. Awesome. And like, you know, with that kind of childhood where you had a passion for soccer, what inspired you or what fascinated you to choose technology as your career? I actually don’t come from a technological background. As I mentioned, I have a Bachelor degree in Operating Management and a Master in Logistics. 

So I started my career as a supply chain consultant at CGI, which is a consulting firm specialized in IT. But I was actually in the supply chain department that has just been created. So it was like being in the music industry without really knowing how to read a music score. So I moved to a startup booting consulting firm called 4L2Group, where I was partner and project director. We were just the two of us at the start and we grew the business for almost four years. Our biggest customer was Dolorama. 

It was back in 2018. And the company was preparing to go public. So we were managing all project related to store operation, logistics for them. So that was by far our biggest customer and the main growth driver of our consulting firm. So in parallel, we started developing the technological aspect of the operation management. So we were implementing a warehouse management system for many customers, including Dolorama. And the business was going extremely well. So we decided to sell the company to KPMG. So they wanted to expand their footprint in the supply chain world. 

So I spent a year and a half in KPMG post transaction. Then I accepted an offer at Dolorama. My mandate was to create the product management office and to develop Dolorama internationally, since we only were in Canada at the time. So that was back in 2012. And a few months after I joined, the IT vice president left the company. So we were and we still are a very lean management team. So I took over the VP IT role while we were searching for replacements. So it took almost a year to find the right candidate for the job. Marcel that is still listening at the time and he did an amazing job for the last 10 years. 

I added the time to learn every aspect of the IT world, infrastructure, network, application, and so on and so forth. So I’m very curious and detailed. So I spent nights reading over those different subjects and to be able to understand the environment and to be able to make the right decisions. Wow, what a journey and what passion you had. And rest is history, I would say. 

Khushboo: Now, this is such an amazing journey. And you know, the start and the career that you have built to date where you are. So now starting from where you started to where you are today as CIO at Tollerama, what would be like one or two stories that are your truly biggest wins? Something that you’re very proud to bring on the show today? 

Nicholas: The first big win that comes to my mind is the international expansion with Darcity. So we signed a partnership agreement in 2013 with a company in El Salvador that had 11 stores at the time. So the deal was, we are helping you develop the business, sourcing the product, implementing the system and processes. And in exchange, we have a call option for 50.1% of the company in 2019 at Nebida Multiple, that was defined at the time. So we exercised the option in 2019 and Darcity became subsidiaries of Tollerama. So we put a lot of work in this, but everything went almost perfectly. 

Now we are in four countries, El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia, and Peru, and we are reaching 500 stores next week. So we have an amazing local partner, the company culture is great, and the customers love the concept. So the international profitable growth proved that the technology and the processes are exportable. And really, it proves that the business model is very strong. Yeah, that would be one of the big wins. Another one could be the technological revolution that we started a few years ago. 

So we moved from laggers to innovators in very little time. So the journey started with the replacement of the old cash register with POS system. Then we started the mobile roadmap where we move all the manual processes on iPod with iOS custom design application used at store level. So it was really the engine of the productivity improvement that we saw over the years. Part of this technological revolution is the way we approach the data. So we were amongst the first company to deploy the BW on ANA a few years ago and adopt a centralized approach focused on exception management. 

So the change from a model where the operations gets reports to a model where they actually get action with the system interpreting the report for the user has been really incremental in the improvement of the execution at store level. 

Khushboo: Awesome. Love that. And congratulations on that 500 store milestone. I mean, that sounds like a very big achievement and win. And now that we’re talking about achievements and success stories, failure is also part and parcel of life, right? And especially in career, like we often fail. So what are your most epic failures? And also like, you know what not to do from that failure. So what is that bouncing back story when you fail, but then you also quickly bounce back? 

Nicholas: So there’s so many failures, I can tell you. I think the first one that comes to mind is probably the mobile cash register. So it was eight or nine years ago, the business issue we were trying to solve was the increased volume during the Christmas period. So in order to cope with the increased traffic, we wanted to add mobile cash registry in very high volume stores. So the goal was really to reduce the lineup and improve all customer experience. So unfortunately, the technology was not what it is today. And we had to build a solution with different components, a mobile device, a pinpad, mobile printer, and integrate all those components in a secure way to the Wi-Fi network. 

On top of it, the complexity was to find the right flow and the right operational process to integrate this concept to the current store layout. So we tried this in store for two, three seasons, and we decided to abandon the program. It was a fail for many reasons. The technology was never solid enough. The pinpad or printer required constant reboot and created frustration to the store ops team. The training was also an issue, just true to the own nature of the project. The retail environment is really high pace, high turnover, and you cannot train in advance because people would either forget or simply being replaced by someone else that needs training. So yeah, since the solution is designed to support the store during the period, it requires training right before the period when the store ops team is really extremely busy and focused on a million different tasks to prepare the Christmas period. So it’s, and you know, it’s always from the failures that you learn the most. 

And to answer the question on how we bounce back, I think the most important thing is to know when to stop, right? Not to be attached to the solution you designed or implemented. The idea is good, you try, it did not work, you learn, and then you move on. Making mistakes is actually a good thing as long as you don’t make those same mistakes twice. Right. So in this case, it really teach me how to be careful on implementing processes that are only temporarily. When you teach something to someone, their learning really sticks with the practice. So trying to explain a process that will be used a few days per year is a much bigger challenge and is actually a recipe for failure. 

Khushboo: Yeah, absolutely. And Nicolas talking about your background and experience now a little bit. Your responsibilities, as far as I know, includes overseeing major projects in IT, store operations, distributions, and also logistics. So can you give our listeners some insight into the scale and complexity of these projects at Dollar Up? 

Nicholas: Yeah, so really, those different projects required a good integration because there’s always IT involved. Those days, you know, IT is always central to any project you’re doing. But the key element is we always start with the business processes. So we sit down with the business owner, we really understand the current process we are trying to improve. Then we get into the improvement, the IT solution to get it done before training the user. But the key element is to start with the process and not to be fooled by the tool, right? So the main important thing is not to be trying to solve the business issue by implementing a tool, you are trying to solve a business issue by fixing the process first, and then you are implementing the tool. 

So my job in Dollar Up, and since I was mentioning, I come from an IT background, I’m really not attached to technology or to tools, right? I’m really attached to the business processes that are underlying. Yeah, and also like Dollarama’s acquisition of Dollar City, I believe significantly expanded your role. So how was the, how was managing the commercial relationship with Dollar City influenced your approach to IT and also project management? I think my role at Dollar City is very similar to the one I have in Dollarama. It’s just that we are, it’s basically having Dollar City benefits from the lesson learned from Dollarama, right? 

So we are implementing a project at Dollarama, then we are replicating it and trying to improve the project we’ve done in Dollar City. So sometimes it’s the opposite, right? We are using Dollar City as the pilot to test the concepts, and then we are bringing it back to Dollarama. So I think that’s part of the benefits of having the dual role is we can really having synergies and leverage learning from a company to another to just accelerate the pace we are running the projects. 

Khushboo: Awesome. And then you’ve also been involved in various community organizations. So how do you balance your professional responsibilities with your community engagement? 

Nicholas: I think it’s really important to give back to the community. There are some organizations I’m very attached to. So I think part of the role is as a corporate citizen, you want to be involved in the community you’re in, right? And balancing it, I’ve always been part of my life. So I keep doing it. Awesome. Thank you for sharing that. Now talking about, you know, the role of project management office and technological innovation. So in today’s rapidly evolving technological landscape, how does the project management office play a crucial role in driving innovation within an organization like Dollarama? 

Yeah, so first, we can define what we call the project management office. So it’s really the art and the mind of an organization. And it’s a centrally centralized unit responsible for overseeing, planning, executing and monitoring projects across the organization. So its core function is to manage and do standardization throughout the organization. And it plays a key role in the technological innovation. So one of the first role is to ensure that technological innovation aligns with the organization’s strategic objectives. So it really acts as a compass guiding innovation projects toward goals that are aligned with the company mission and visions. By establishing clear project objectives, key performance indicators, what we do is the PMO ensures that the innovation is just not a buzzword or really a strategic asset that drives the business growth. So in Dollarama, the project roadmap of the different departments is managed and prioritized by the roadmap lead. 

And the roadmap lead ensure that they are in tune with all the changing business needs. So for us, the roadmap is not a fixed image, it’s really an ongoing story that changes every day. So not only to align with the strategy, but is also ensure that the tactical dimension is agile and and that we can change direction on the fly. So the key is to alternate between a kind of a microscope and a telescope. So we kind of balance the long-term goal and and without losing sight of all the details. 

Khushboo: Yeah, and all in all this, I think collaboration is also very crucial in technology and innovation. So how does your team foster collaboration between IT and the other areas of the business to continuously drive innovation? 

Nicholas: Yeah, so technological innovation very often required expertise from different departments within the organization. So a siloed approach can be very detrimental to the progress and to all of this innovation. So this is where the PMO shines. It really acts as a bridge. It promotes collaboration and cross-functional teamwork. So facilitate the exchange of ideas, knowledge, resources. It really creates this and foster this culture of innovation. 

So that’s why the profile of the PMO resources is very important, right? They don’t have administrative authority over the people of the other department, but they are, but they really need to get the job done, right? So it requires people that are very talented and with a very natural leadership. So people want to follow their lead, even if they are not forced to. So at Dalrama, we have this culture of discipline and when we have this culture, you don’t need a really firm hierarchy. 

So yeah, so when the PMO is properly placed at the heart of the organization and receive a full support from the upper management, then it’s a very special position to be in, but it’s also very demanding. Yeah. And talking about, you know, challenges and also trends, what are some of the unique challenges that you have encountered in your role as CIO, particularly in the context of the retail industry and technology? I think retail is very fast. It’s a really fast-paced environment. So changing every day, the challenges are the same, but some become in some specific year than others. This year, for example, all the retailer reports an increase in shrink, for example. So shrink being a complex element to deal with. So what all the CIO are doing is checking out how technology could help supporting the business and where we can introduce elements to reduce shrink involving AI, for example. That’s the type of stuff we do. 

So it’s required really to be quick and to change the focus. And what sometimes happens is because the business is evolving very fast, as a CIO, you need to switch. And with the project management office, the role is to really align the focus of the project to the needs of the organization. So when the needs are changing very fast, then all the focus is also changing very fast. So it creates an environment that is very dynamic, which is the environment we are in, but can be very challenging for people because it gives the perception that you’re changing your mind every day. 

Khushboo: Yeah, yeah, that’s true. And since technology is always evolving, are there any emerging technological trends or innovations that you believe will be particularly influential in the retail sector? And how is Dollarama preparing for them? 

Nicholas: I think one of the elements of the post-pandemic environment is everything that is related to the labor market. So when you hire hourly wage employee, and with retail being known for a high turnover environment, I think the technology has not really reached or not being really deployed in this area where the processes to apply and to be hired in the retail environment has not been changed for many years. So we’re working on different initiatives where we are really looking to improve and accelerate the candidate experience and how fast we can hire store associates to help our store operation team because in the current labor market, it’s been a challenge. So this is one of the areas that I think in five years from now, we’ll see a totally different market. 

Khushboo: Okay. And now more on a personal side, like what motivates and drives you in your role as a technology leader and CIO? 

Nicholas: I think I like solving business issues with technology. I like looking at complex issues and see how we can facilitate the work for the store operation and for our retail leadership team. That’s what I like. I like waking up, looking at an issue and trying to solve it. And the other element is I’m impressed on how the team has evolved along the year. And now we’re talking about the PMO earlier on, but now I like looking at this engine and looking at how people are evolving and what they are doing. And I’m very impressed by how they drive the business on a day-to-day basis. 

Khushboo: Awesome. And do you have any mentors or role models who have influenced your career and approach to technology? 

Nicholas: I read a lot and I read a lot of audio books, I listen to podcasts. So I have a lot of people I like and that I follow on a weekly basis. And I think that’s part of the role and that’s part of the stuff that we need to do. We need to listen and learn from. I like reading biography and I’ve read probably over a hundred over the years. So I’m learning of everyone that I can from. So Nicolas, what advice would you like to give to people who are starting their career in IT or they are transitioning from a non-IT career domain to an IT, to being an IT professional? Over the years, I have mentored a few people and the number one advice I always give them is to put a focus on their daily routine and habits, right? 

We are what we do over and over. And this is those daily actions that really express your character. So you need to build habits that bring you where you want to be and get rid of habits that hold you down. So the requirement to perform at the highest level professionally is very similar to the professional athletes. They are obviously not that extreme, but the foundation are the same. So it requires a routine that will take into account training, nutrition, sleep, time to rest, time to learn. So building good habits is a key success factor to work performance. 

And it’s really never too early or never too late to start. So very often people are putting unrealistic expectations with their habits and end up not being able to execute on this because it’s too restrictive or too extreme. For example, they will say, I want to work out five days a week as part of my weekly routine, but currently they are not working out at all. So they will do it for a week or two and it won’t stick. They will feel guilty. And so building a routine really needs to be progressive and sustainable. So starting working out one or two times a week for a month, then two, three times. So it’s really building a routine is to formalize a schedule, considering work, training, sleep, personal time, learning time, but to never forget that the schedule is your servant, not your master. And we need to be flexible around it. So yeah, that would be the one piece of advice. 

Khushboo: Awesome. Love that. And yeah, like work-life balance and having a routine definitely plays a big role. So I 1000% agree with you on that, Nicholas. But thank you, Nicholas, for coming on the show. I think it’s time where we want to let you go. But before I let you go, if people want to reach out to you, or if they want to know more about the work you are doing, like I know you’re involved in a lot of community things. So where can they find you online? 

Nicholas: Yeah, they can find me on LinkedIn. So it’s the easier way to reach me. And thank you very much for having me. That was a pleasure. 

Khushboo: Same here, Nicholas. It was great talking to you. And I’m sure the insights and your journey will inspire a lot of people listening to our show. 

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