Learning To Innovate

Inventours brings senior level executives in contact with best-in-class design innovators

Since I first began teaching the Harvard Case El Bulli: A Taste of Innovation in all my MBA New Products & Services classes, it has become my students’ favorite case because the lessons can be applied to large companies.  The case has also inspired my own new business venture, Inventours, that brings senior level execs to meet with best-in-class innovators in product design, food, technology, architecture, fashion, sustainability and hospitality, in their workplaces, to see their work, hear their philosophies, and understand how physical and mental environments can impact creativity and collaboration. Here are some key “take aways” companies like.

Leaders with a vision and working philosophy, clearly understood and shared by the entire organization, create more productive working environments. Chef Ferran Adria is a leader. He leads by making his values and working philosophy well known and embraced by his entire team. This includes never copying others; surprising and delighting customers by evoking emotions, childhood memories, irony, wonder, and analogies; engaging all the senses, if possible, with each dish; breaking the rules and not being constrained by what has been done before. Firms that work most productively and cohesively fully understand the values and mission of their companies. They know what is and isn’t consistent. They don’t waste time guessing what the objectives really are and working on products and services that don’t fit.

It’s critical to allow and allocate time to innovate and do things well. El Bulli closed for six months each year, to allow the core group of “inventors” to scan the globe for new ingredients, food combinations, cooking equipment, techniques, and presentations.  While large companies cannot shut down for months, Google has a 20% time rule and 3M has a 15% rule that allow employees to devote time to projects they’re passionate about, that may have nothing to do with their jobs. It helps to sanction employees taking a step back to view their own business and the company’s other businesses from a distance, to explore hypotheses, and new business ideas. Firms, whose employees are caught up in day-to-day firefighting, are much less likely to think into the future and be really innovative.

A range of customer touch points makes new products and services great. Many factors went into making a dinner at El Bulli a memorable experience: The two-hour serpentine drive to the restaurant along the Costa Brava, the tour of the kitchen before the meal, meeting Ferran Adria, cocktails on the terrace overlooking the Mediterranean, the décor, the serving pieces and tableware which were specially designed for each dish by, the sequence of the 32 small dishes that made up the meal, the instructions on how to eat each, the dishes themselves which included original combinations of ingredients and cooking techniques, the artistic presentations, the unique alcoholic beverages such as pine liquor; and the price, though not inexpensive, could have been significantly higher, given the demand.

It’s extremely important to create a psychological and physical environment that fosters innovation. At El Bulli failure is allowed. Not allowed are mediocre thinking, effort, and technique. Group effort is valued and credited above individual achievements. When talking about their work, group members say “we” and not “I”.  Team members have multifunctional expertise and these different perspectives are embraced and respected. The workshop is immaculately clean and organized; it houses a variety of equipment, some of which is unusual for a restaurant kitchen, inviting experimentation.

Having a Methodical Process and Great Stimuli maximize creativity. The work done in the El Bulli Taller (workshop) is surprisingly methodical and systematic.  Innovation is not left to chance. The core group of inventors dedicates time to collecting great stimuli by travelling the world and benchmarking other countries’ cuisines, other industries’ equipment, and other creative artists’ presentations.  There is a checklist of the many techniques they apply, such as deconstruction (taking apart a familiar dish and putting it back together in ways that are reminiscent of the old, yet novel and smile-producing) or analogies (taking a favorite childhood dish, like an ice cream sandwich, and turning it into a savory version with Parmesan wafers).  El Bulli also experiments by subjecting individual ingredients to new cooking techniques. They take new cooking techniques and apply them to a range of ingredients. The team documents everything they do, and iterates repeatedly, until they get things right. A concerted effort is made to involve as many senses as possible. Great innovation cannot happen by chance. Firms need a process that continually injects new thinking, to make it happen again and again. For many, this might seem like a burden, yet it’s the mark of firms that are successful over sustained periods of time, to not stand still.

All ideas need solid screening criteria that both fit what the brand stands for and make economic sense. The criteria that El Bulli applied, for example, were that the dishes be consistent with its core values: the dishes had to be novel, original, evoke an emotional response, taste great, look attractive, and be intriguing.  Dishes were evaluated on dimensions including presentation, acoustics, and mechanics. From a practical standpoint, they had to be reproducible daily. It is my hope that by bringing global execs, tasked with innovation, to meet creative innovators like Ferran Adria in Barcelona and Claus Meyer of Noma in Copenhagen (currently rated the # 1 Restaurant in the World), leading furniture, fashion, product and graphic designers, architects, cutting-edge tech start-ups, and chocolatiers, they’ll be inspired by the stimuli and innovation process insights to help their firms engage in more “out of the box” thinking.

Michelle Greenwald is a former senior vice president of new business development at Disney and a vice president and general manager of new products at Pepsi-Cola. Currently, she teaches at Columbia, NYU Stern and IESE Graduate Schools of Business and guest lectures at several international graduate business schools. She specializes in marketing strategy, marketing plans, new products and services development, and innovation. Michelle provides unique and practical executive education programs through her consulting firm Marketing Visualized. She is also the CEO of Inventours™ — Inspiration For Innovation, a series of programs providing insider access to innovation thought leaders in the world's most creative cities.

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