As part of RBC Thought Leadership’s deep dive into the Creative economy, Disruptors podcast host Trinh Theresa Do talked to Tom Waller, Lululemon’s senior vice president for advanced innovation and chief science officer about creativity in crisis, the importance of purpose and what he’s learned as leader of Whitespace, the firm’s in-house innovation and R&D team.
How would you define creativity within the context of what you do?
I joined the company nine years ago to look at the world of Lululemon and question what we could become with the assets that we have. Creativity in that sense was about saying what if? What if we could be more of a solution to our guests’ total wellbeing than just helping them get dressed? My job was to bring some codification to our approach.
It sounds like creativity was woven into Lululemon’s DNA from the very beginning.
I was attracted to Lululemon because innovation was everywhere. It didn’t feel like it was something they needed to add. It was something they needed to amplify. And an important thing was to not get too good at being Lululemon, to not get stuck in that identity that others would start to describe. Too many companies start to wallow in success and wonder why they see a diminishing return.
What else is integral to the creative culture of Lululemon? And how did you codify that?
There’s the science of feel and human connection. On the product side, science of feel is the primary focus. As we get closer to retail, the bull’s eye shifts towards human connection. Think about when you get dressed in the morning. You did that to yourself and it created a level of confidence. Understanding how clothes and other sensory inputs can shift your state of mind and directly affect the performance of tasks…as we codify those things, we can affect not just human-centered design, but we can understand the mechanisms that affect those behaviors and create for those.
What role do you think crises play in creativity?
A lot of incredible things are forged in crisis. And those of us that create now really do have a different level of influence in the future that unfolds. The fact that it’s been a health crisis is really interesting because we’ve all had a brush with mortality. So we’re able to really scrutinize what matters. And interestingly, comfort really matters.
What role does your Vancouver location play in the success of Lululemon?
When you live in a problem, you tend to want to create a solution. So being in the great outdoors, being in a temperate rainforest, being around the Pacific Northwest, we have something like 16 or 17 different climates that we can experience throughout 12 month cycles. So surprise, clothing companies evolve. And surprise, as soon as it’s sunny, people pile outside and try and be active. Lululemon being created here was not an accident.
How would you advise other companies seeking to grow the way Lululemon did?
The most important thing is to back up from the business model and look a little harder at the purpose. The business model encourages us not to change. The purpose encourages us to change.
You sometimes see big mature companies separate their innovation teams from the rest of the corporation to protect them. How do you ensure Whitespace remains in a safe space?
I don’t know if safe is the right mindset. In fact, my team would probably say the opposite. When I first coined the term Whitespace, it was because I was hearing this terminology, ‘there are these white spaces around us. There are these opportunities that seem to be empty that maybe we should go and populate.’ I didn’t want to be called the innovation team, because two things happen. One is everyone says, ‘oh, OK, they’ll do it.’ And then you instantly shrink the innovation capability across the rest of the company. Or you have the opposite, which is ‘how come they get to do it?’ And then you create a moat between business as usual and business unusual.
My founding philosophy is that projects own people. People don’t own projects. There isn’t one team that gets to own a separate set of projects, there are clearly defined projects with a different success criteria and a different cross-functional group. That is the talent that brings that to life.
There’s clearly at some point a handoff of the development work you oversee. What are the key factors that would push an idea to execution?
It’s not a relay race. So there isn’t really a handover. We treat it like a team sport. A different person is driving the bus, but we’re still on the bus, we just we provide a different service in that in that stage. The most important thing is that the goal gets scored and we stay there until the game is over.
What is the ideal mindset for a creative team player?
Tolerance for ambiguity. I tend to come across two types of people. There’s a person that waits for structure and a person that creates structure. The latter is preferable. We very much look for people that are able to sit in ambiguity and go, ‘hmmm, I’m on a blank sheet of paper here, but I’m just going to start doodling if nothing else.’ And this doodle turned into something. Not everyone is wired to do that. Not everyone can be trained to do that. We can give people the psychological safety to fail in adding structure to ambiguity. But it’s very much a people-powered thing and a rare and valuable skill.
As a company, how do you attract the right mix of those types?
What is really important is to be attractive to all types of people. We have to be able to look at the world like it needs us to create something. On the other side of the coin, we have to be able to deliver it. To be attractive to big thinkers is just as important as to be attractive to big deliverers. The best way forward seems to be, hire both.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
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