Warby Parker CEO: The One Thing We Ask Employees to Do Every Week
The Leadership Insiders network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question, “How do encourage creativity within your organization?” is written by Neil Blumenthal, co-founder and co-CEO of Warby Parker.
One of the core values of the startup world is that you must have a list of core values. Like all abstract ideas, they’re easy to dream up and tricky to implement. Many of us have had the experience of working at companies whose core values were purely theoretical—or, worse, existed in active opposition to the day-to-day workplace environment. (Is there anything more demoralizing?) In order to breathe life into the collection of words we call “core values,” we’re constantly concocting ways to enact them—and regularly surveying employees to find out where we’ve missed the mark.
“Learn, grow, repeat” is one of our values. It’s pretty intuitive. Smart people enjoy learning. Active brains thrive on stimulation. Creativity flows when curiosity is stoked. There are concrete ways to do this (like offering skills training) and holistic ways to do this (like encouraging employees to be informed and culturally engaged). For example, we have a capacious and well-stocked library in our headquarters that employees freely borrow from, and our retail stores are likewise filled with books and art. This is one reason why we prioritize diversity in hiring: A wealth of perspectives makes the workplace an intellectually galvanizing place to be.
It’s also a reason why we launched WarbyCon, a daylong internal convention of seminars led by Warby Parker employees on every subject from Bayesian statistics to pop music to gender to retail real estate. We had a second motive for the conference too: Recent employee surveys had shown us that employees were eager to polish their public speaking abilities. A convention seemed like a prime opportunity to supply training in public speaking to participants while cultivating a thirst for learning. We also had really good snacks on hand—think brain food.
Hosting a yearly quirky internal convention is a good way to blast open the fire hydrant of ideas, but companies need to have sustained, thoughtful programs in place to make sure that innovation is a daily practice. The simplest way to pursue new and creative ideas is to ask for them—and listen. At Warby, each employee submits a weekly “Innovation Idea,” which can be anything from “We should celebrate our seventh anniversary with a ‘lucky-7’ themed instant-win game where customers can win glasses for life” (we actually did that this year) to “We should create a parody site for April Fools’ Day where we pretend to sell glasses to dogs” (also done!) Although it could sound like a startup cliché, the habit of suggesting a weekly idea really does get people in the habit of dreaming up cool concepts. After all, creativity begets creativity.
While these innovative ideas might seem random, they demonstrate our conviction that core values aren’t just a nebulous company culture concept, but a strategic imperative. And like all strategic imperatives, they need to be approached deliberately and rigorously. This means creating processes and activities that reinforce the desired behavior, and finding new ways to do so over the long term, so that you’re actually modeling the behavior you want to encourage.
Creativity is a business imperative. Every organization and industry is changing quickly these days, and every role within every organization is changing quickly as well. Product designers now spend more time designing for mobile than they did five years ago, when desktop was king. Copywriters have to adopt their writing style to the constraints and vocabulary of social media. The velocity of change is dizzying. Being resourceful, adaptable, and ingenious is a basic job requirement.
That may sound intimidating, but look on the bright side: Creativity is now recognized as less a gift than a teachable skill. Just as a company needs a strategy to capture market share, a company needs a strategy to encourage actions that reflect their core values. Otherwise, those all-important sentences are just words on a piece of paper.