Gramicci’s brain bending sessions help company define itself and grow

Even simple ideas can become great ones. You just have to be ready to put them into play when they occur. Marty Weening, CEO of Gramicci, credits his daughter with generating a particular idea that has really benefited his company. Funny thing is, her suggestion had nothing to do with work.

Even simple ideas can become great ones. You just have to be ready to put them into play when they occur.

Marty Weening, CEO of Gramicci, credits his daughter with generating a particular idea that has really benefited his company. Funny thing is, her suggestion had nothing to do with work.

“She came back from college and insisted that we have a family night once a week to talk and share,” Weening told SNEWS®. “It was such a great thing I began wondering why we didn’t just do this at work too.”

Before long, Gramicci launched what are now known as “brain bending” sessions. Every week, at a regularly scheduled time, anyone in the company, from the stock clerks to the CEO, is welcomed and encouraged to get together and talk, share and formulate ideas that drive the company forward.

“No subject is taboo, no idea squelched, no discussion is deemed trivial,” Weening told us. “We have discussions that range from ‘I wish you had not asked me to do that this way’ to out-of-the-box discussions about shared experiences and communication and ways it happens. In every session, the only guideline is we are there to bend the norm and try to alter our thinking.”

This altered thinking has proven to be a breeding ground for company ideas that continue to shape the corporate identity.

In 2006, the company introduced the Greenicci line of sustainable and organic clothing, for which it was recently named to Apparel Magazine’s list of the industry’s Top 50 Innovators. In addition to the Greenicci line, about four-fifths of the company’s packaging and hangtags are now made of Green Seal-certified recycled, chlorine-free papers, printed with soy ink. Among the company’s other corporate business practices is a mandate that all business reports and presentations are produced paper-free, which reduced internal paper use by 70 percent.

“Our entire recycled booth concept came out of a brain bending session, as have our marketing ideas that determine how we describe and define ourselves,” Weening said. “‘Never the Norm’ came out of sessions as a subtext description for who we are. We also talk a lot about our roots and our customers and ensuring that we always stay humble students of our consumers.”

The recycled booth that was born in a brain bending session earned Gramicci a SNEWS® Eco BOB Award for booth design at Winter Market 2008 – click here to read story.

The latest idea to come out of a brain bending session is Gramicci’s Drive Less – BBWC More incentive program that rewards employees for contributions toward lessening carbon footprint on the planet by traveling to and from work. (click here to read the Gramicci press release describing the program )

As Weening tells it, Sarah Mark, the company’s head of design, has been riding a bus from downtown Los Angeles to Agoura Hills, and then setting out from the bus stop on her bike to cover the final miles to work. After a brain bending session, she sent him an email wondering what the company might be able to do to encourage more employees to bike, walk or ride the bus to work.

“My response was ‘why not?’ So we worked to outline a plan of what we would do and how (we would do it), realizing it had to be meaningful to reward serious commitment and effort,” Weening told us.

When we spoke with Weening on May 21, he said that 67 percent of the company’s 38 employees, including executive staff, were participating in the program.

“I hope it lasts and they all begin to do this as a matter of habit, and not just because there is a reward in it for them,” said Weening. “There are unexpected benefits too, we are discovering. By commuting together, you get time to talk and time together you might not otherwise have shared, which results in deeper friendships and the generation of more ideas. For those who commute by themselves on a bus or bike or by walking, they are finding they get time to read more, reflect more, and everyone feels better for having done something.”

Weening said he is also working to walk the talk. “I live 17 miles from work, and it is very hilly, so I have started training on my bike with the goal of making it to work at least two days a week currently. It is a big challenge for me,” he said.

Adding to the challenge for those who bike or walk is the fact that Gramicci has no shower facilities. “It is a problem,” Weening admitted. “We are looking at putting in showers, but it is a big expense, and our landlord is not amenable to giving us square footage to put facilities in. And, there is no nearby health club we could work a trade or pay a monthly fee for our employees to use.”

SNEWS® View: Gramicci is proof that great ideas often need fertile ground to grow in. The brain bending sessions are just that. Knowing this, it’s probably no surprise that the company organization chart is atypical, built around Weening’s belief that a company lives or dies with its ideas. As such, the company chart is a circle that surrounds a word in the middle – IDEA. All departments in the company flow into that center. Weening once told us that any good team has all the freedom in the world to bring ideas forward, and that opportunity and growth, even in a difficult economy, are only limited by what ideas are not brought forth. Never say no to an idea. It’s a philosophy Weening is using to rebuild Gramicci, and it appears to be paying dividends in bulk. And given a few more brain bending sessions, we bet the company can solve the shower facility issue too.


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