As part of RBC Thought Leadership’s deep dive into the Creative economy, Disruptors podcast host Trinh Theresa Do talked to Brittany Forsyth, outgoing chief talent officer at Shopify, about maintaining a creative startup culture in the face of explosive growth.
Shopify is one of Canada’s most innovative companies. What’s the relationship between creativity and innovation?
Creativity is the space in which you play. Innovation is the outcome. It’s a measurement of how creative you’ve been and how bold you are in the execution. The creative space we’ve formed at Shopify allows for risk-taking, curiosity and resourcefulness, because generally when you’re being creative, you’re removing the constraints that sometimes have us all doing the same thing over and over again.
In that environment, what types of people tend to thrive and how do you find them?
When I made it to the exec team, on one of the off-sites, we were having this conversation around creativity and what it means. At this point, I thought it meant you get a lightbulb moment, you find the perfect solution no one else can see. Through that conversation, I had my own cheesy lightbulb moment, which was creativity doesn’t happen with the snap of a finger. It happens by connecting all the information over time and at some point all it unlocks a new thought. That was an amazing notion because it removed the constraints of someone either has it or doesn’t. We all have the ability to build it.
So when we bring people in, curiosity is foundational. We look for people that have a past track record of thinking outside the box. And a growth mindset, a constant learner.
How do you empower these people to grow and contribute to the company?
It starts with giving permission. What does it mean to fail? It’s actually OK as long as you don’t make the same mistake over and over. We do hack days. It’s three days where we stop what we’re doing and allow everyone to sign up for projects of their choice. Then we pitch them. We’ve had numerous hack day projects become critical builds of Shopify.
Most executives want new ideas, but they don’t want to change how things are done. How can companies embed creativity and new ideas into their processes?
The hardest part is when it challenges something so built into a company or that you’ve personally built. People have challenged me on something that I put my heart and soul into, and I have to listen to their feedback and ideas while also internally going through the emotional rollercoaster of, like, ‘this sucks, was I wrong?’ It takes strength. It takes maturity. It takes awareness. But if you can get there, the outcomes are just unbelievable.
You have to murder your darlings.
That’s the truth. One thing we always say is that once you create an idea, it’s no longer yours. You have to put it out there, you have to let go of it.
So how do you encourage people at Shopify to do that?
We try, even in feedback, to not ever make it personal, but about the idea itself. To be really clear on the problems rather than the person driving it. We also try and use a lot of data, whether it’s qualitative or quantitative. And we do a lot of project briefs. It’s easier to challenge ideas on that front. But I think it really comes down to walking the talk. Do you believe the best idea should prevail? If you do, you will find a way to share feedback that isn’t personal, that allows space to lick our wounds and move forward.
The notion of separating the person from the idea implies that many people can take different aspects of an idea to execution?
When building a project, we always have a champion, the most knowledge-based person on the topic. With Digital by Design, I was the champion so I have immersed myself in everything to know about digital work. However, I know that I shouldn’t, nor can I, make all the solutions on my own. So there’s a core team that’s working on it.
And just because you’re under a product team doesn’t mean you won’t be able to jump in and be a contributor to a talent project. I think it’s important to ignore the organizational structure and think of who’s going to challenge your assumptions the most.
How has the company been able to maintain its creative startup culture in the face of explosive growth?
I joined when we were about 20 employees, as the office manager. It was like, ‘you’re going to go get bananas,’ which was the snack of the office. ‘You’re going to book travel.’ I was like, ‘I just graduated H.R. so can I just dabble with a few things?’ Within a few months, we got our Series A funding and because of a few projects I had done, Tobi [Lütke] was like, ‘OK, you’re going to do more H.R. stuff.’ He saw an opportunity to grow someone. That hasn’t stopped. Every moment where we grew, I was invested in as an individual and I was the most unlikely, unorthodox person that should have been in that role.
When we went public, I was promoted about a year and a half before that to the exec team. I remember saying, are you sure you want me to do this? Every other company I knew actually brought in someone who had done it before. And one of the things that was said to me was ‘no, your lack of doing that means we’re going to solve in a new way.’ That’s a key to creativity, to challenge the status quo. I have never done H.R. in any other company. So when I get a problem, I just think about it in a very logical way. I’m still surrounding myself with people that have done it. I seek advice. But that lack of the scar tissue actually drives a new solution.
So the artistry of building Shopify, and really the team as a whole, is we hire teachers and students. Each person is a teacher and a student.
Can you describe ‘bursting’?
That’s when people come together in real life. We’re looking to solve gnarly problems, to get into a creative flow, have fun, build relationships. But it all has to be anchored in why we’re here, which is for our merchants. And so a lot of intentionality is going into it. We’re thinking about it as a hack day on steroids, meaning you come together between three to five days and you go deep with your team. We all know that moment where you’re in that creative flow, you’re all getting the right ideas out and you’re onto something amazing and it feels so good and it bonds you with these humans for lifetimes even.
You burst, you plug in, you charge up and then you go back and deplete it over time through your use. But then you go back and you plug in and charge back up again.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
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