We recognize the lululemon athletica brand for its reputation of high quality and aesthetically inspiring athletic and yoga wear, as well as its strong company culture. Over the years, the company has maintained an extremely entrepreneurial spirit and a drive for breakthrough innovation. Three years ago, the Whitespace team was born as a way for lululemon to strengthen and rethink their innovation capacities.
The team is comprised of three core areas: innovation management, which defines the types of problems they are working on; advanced technology, to understand solutions to those problems; and scientific research, to understand solutions in the real world and the value they are creating in the market.
lululemon’s innovation efforts are successful because they all stem from their commitment to partnership, which has manifested in multiple ways – partnership within the business at large, partnership with their store educators (retail staff) and ambassadors (athletes and yogis), partnership with their guests (customers), and partnership with their vendors.
As with any relationship we enter, professional or otherwise, true partnership is built through curiosity, trust, respect, and humility. The Whitespace team holds true to these values. As a group, they are constantly self- reflective, hungry for knowledge, enthusiastic to participate, hands-on, and willing to immerse themselves in a problem so that they may challenge and strengthen their thinking and approach.
MISC spoke to Brian Peterson, Whitespace’s Director of Innovation, to explore his perspective about what makes the team unique, and what “re” means to him.
What is the overall mission of the Whitespace team?
We stand for human potential. We collaborate with teams across the business and look at creating products, services, experiences, and conversations that allow our guests to get closer to their potential in athletics, yoga, meditation, or whatever they are up to in their lives. This is in the DNA of the company as a whole, but also the specific lens the Whitespace team takes.
Essentially, Whitespace is interested in solving real problems, sometimes even problems that guests don’t realize they have. This is key, as we’re a company that is continuously focused on innovation and the functionality of our products. We also act a bit like a competitor within the company, challenging the in-line design teams and the rest of the organization to push their limits. This is a symbiotic relationship, as we’re also challenged regularly by those teams.
We talk ten years, invest in five years, and commit to three years.
How do you push limits within the company?
If you look at how lululemon develops seasonal products, we typically operate within the context of incremental innovation – constantly updating seasonal styles, developing new products, and creating fresh concepts to offer our guests. Whitespace goes one step further, and looks at what competitive forces might do to challenge lululemon. We explore areas that fundamentally challenge the way we work, the way we create products, and the ways in which we offer value. Much of our work happens outside of lululemon’s corporate strategy, on projects that are more transformational or disruptive in nature. That being said, our work can, and does, inform our corporate strategy. Though our work is longer-term in nature, it’s critical that our team is adding ongoing value.
What kind of work environment do you believe inspires innovation?
We work in a space called The Workshop, which is an area of exploration for Whitespace and the company as a whole. It’s a very hands-on environment, where we are working with technology and athletes in context. We are hacking, creating products, and measuring and testing athletes. We can simulate pretty much any environmental condition that an athlete faces, be it hot, cold, wet, or dry. We do what it takes to work with athletes doing what they do best – whether it’s running, biking, yoga, or any other sport – in the actual conditions that they do them in.
How does the notion of “re” apply to the Whitespace team and what you do?
What stands out is the idea of rethinking. As a team, our primary task is answering fundamental questions that force us to rethink our guest, our brand, and our products. We rethink what a product or an experience could mean for our guest, and what our guest will look like in the future so we can create a product that is right for them.
What is an example of work done by the Whitespace team that illustrates the notion of rethink?
We recently collaborated with our design team to rethink our women’s pant collection. It started as a research project about compressive garments for our men’s line, and led to an entire reimagining of our pant wall for women – which is a core pillar of our business.
There is a general understanding in the apparel industry that most products competing in the area of athletic compression typically don’t live up to the claims they purport. This includes the contention that a tight-fitting pant or sock will help an athlete perform better. In reality, medical-grade compression requires very specific knowledge about the user – measurements, blood flow, etc. We asked if there could be a unique value proposition that could be created for compression in our men’s line that is both true and helps us differentiate ourselves.
This, in turn, led to an entirely new way of thinking about the technical design of our women’s pant line based on sensation. We partnered with the design team to combine sports psychology, our approach to training, compression science, and design, to create engineered sensation in our women’s pants. Together, we’ve fundamentally reset how we design our women’s pant line and how our guests experience our product through a carefully considered spectrum of engineered sensations, from “relaxed” to “tight.” This rethink allows any female guest to choose the right pants for her workout, and unlock her unique performance potential.
How do you instill the ethos of “rethink” within your innovation process?
As a brand, we are extremely active in our communities. We continuously engage in conversations with athletes, yoga practitioners, and the active-wear community at large. We talk to people who are doing interesting things, and we learn a lot from them. We are also hungry for feedback on our products; there are often seeds of inspiration we may discover that might have a very disruptive opportunity embedded in them. A lot of our ideas come from being active and aware in our communities and talking with our guests. We’re a highly sensitive business, we’re always exploring new ways to integrate concepts into our business and incubate them. We also give our stores a lot of autonomy to operate, creating situations where they have to be entrepreneurial. So that mindset is fostered throughout the business.
How is “rethink” a concept that is fostered within the team culture?
lululemon is a company where self-reflection, self- improvement, and self-development are highly valued. It’s part of our DNA, and is how we create value for the business.
We also embrace the moments when projects, concepts, and learning can be ambiguous. We know that, by default, effective people try to make the ambiguous tangible, so we hold space for ambiguity as long as possible and explore many different ways to solve problems and make solutions tangible and functional. It’s okay to be in a project “huddle” (team meeting) and to challenge the strategy, the perspective, or even the concepts all the way up to the point at which we deliver our ideas to the commercial in-line team. We hire people who can dance between ambiguity and tangibility. It’s science, with a good amount of art.
In what ways is the team unique from your perspective?
A lot of innovation groups are structured under lock and key models where they are not really sharing out the concepts they are working on with the business. For lululemon, Whitespace is focused on collaboration and working cross-functionally with teams across the company. Whether it’s the operations, development, or design team, they are in it with us, developing the insights and how those projects can come to life so that when there is a handoff – taking a proof of concept into commercialization – they’ve been involved since the start. Further, we can’t actually commercialize our ideas without our in-line team partners. There is no element of surprise or space to wonder what we are doing, because the rest of the business is thoroughly involved in what we’re working on.
What’s in store for the future of Whitespace?
As a relatively new team, we have been working on our structure and how we intersect with the rest of lululemon. As a growing company, there is, and will continue to be, a constant refining of that. We are really good at developing value and having the business turn that value into product insights and products themselves, but there is always opportunity to get better. As the concepts get more complex and disruptive in nature, the better we need to be. The opportunity for us to create a smooth transition from concept to real experience and product is what we’re going to focus on in the next little while, as we start to deliver our concepts to the business at a faster pace.