Where Boeuf Bourgignon and Innovation Collide

THE INNOVATION MIX

Sorry to the Vegetarians ;-)

The 2009 film, ‘Julie & Julia’, written and directed by Nora Ephron, was available on a flight to Perth the other day and I watched it for the third time, with pleasure …and appetite. For those who haven’t yet indulged, it’s about a wannabe writer, Julie, who is at a loose end and decides to make all 500+ Julia Child recipes in just 365 days and blog about the experience. For the foodies, it’s instructive. For those who care more about characters, there are two exquisite relationships portrayed in this film. Anyway, I noticed on this third watch that the person who would become the editor of Julia Child’s book not only read the recipes — she tested them and, notably, trialled the famous Boeuf Bourgignon — drooling as she did so. The proof was in the making.

Likewise, in our quest to find that special innovation flavour that permeates the whole organisation, it’s ultimately the results that count…

So, I was musing about my time as a corporate ‘intrapreneur’ — and now teaching & facilitating Systematic Inventive Thinking (SIT) — and how far I could draw on this analogy to illustrate the sort of things we should look for in our innovation framework.

It’s probably important that I mention up front that I am really bad at sticking to a recipe! I am infamous in my family for treating it as a sort of a guideline. The guys over in SIT Tel Aviv would no doubt say the same about what they’ve seen in years of helping organisations create sustainable innovation initiatives: There is no cookie cutter approach; no one size fits all. There is, however, a number of ingredients that any innovation leader or intrapreneur could helpfully have on the radar…

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For those not familiar with Systematic Inventive Thinking (SIT), it is one of the rare methods that truly shifts the thinking — which makes sense when you are aiming to think differently!

SIT is an Israeli company and method founded in 1995. It is based in Tel Aviv. SIT’s sweet spot is overcoming the obstacles to thinking innovatively (constraints, cognitive bias, assumptions…). The method is grounded in academic research that showed that 5 patterns pretty much cover 80% of the most innovative ideas. These patterns were then reverse-engineered into thinking tools that — when plugged into a system, process, product… — increase our chances of coming up with something inventive. A key principle that underpins the power of these tools is that they are used in a counter-intuitive way that helps us suspend our cognitive bias; we work from a solution to a problem.

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Anyway, what easy (and sometimes fraught ;-) ) parallels did I draw between Julie’s adventure and the equally daunting task of fostering innovation in an organisation?

Like with a recipe, when fostering innovation in an organisation, it is really helpful to have an image of where you are trying to get to but you can’t just show an appetising picture of the endgame and let people guess how to get there; you need to show them HOW. And the approach should be accessible to all, learnable, easy to follow and effective.

One of the things that puts people off — or makes a recipe look unattainable — is when it uses lots of ingredients you don’t have in your pantry. Likewise, in innovation, people are relieved to be shown how to harness the stuff they already have — but also how to use them in new ways. In SIT, we are so convinced by this that we impose an artificial constraint on the thinking space so that we have to strive to only use the resources we have in the problem world to solve that problem. This makes the outcome more feasible.

That said, someone still has to stock the cupboards. There is no point trying to make something for which you don’t have the basic ingredients, time and ability available. In organisations where there is no resourcing ($, time, space, skills…) for innovation, people quickly hit a wall.

Innovation should require a certain amount of creativity but, like a well-considered recipe, make sure your method has a system and is not too reliant on creative flair and imagination. Some innovation methods are overly reliant on a big creative leap and this can lead to rather random results. It is well established that actually think better with constraints (check out Margaret Boden on the topic). In SIT, we try to keep people in an ‘innovation sweet spot’ whereby ideas generated are neither too “Far” to be unrealistic nor too “Near” to be uninventive. This means using thinking that pushes the ideas hard but thinking inside — not outside the box.

Have you noticed that when you shop, you often buy the same stuff? Our path of least resistance is to stick to 20 or so core dishes. In organisations, it’s the same. We adults are busy and often limiting ourselves to travelled paths and this ends up being a bias and limiting our options. We need to bring in methods that challenges the thinking; that expose the blind spots. One of the nice things about SIT is that it busts cognitive fixedness — our tendency to lock things into certain functions or relationships or to only see the whole and not its parts. Other methods are great with other types of unconscious bias. Blend it up!

Most of us don’t have a lot of time, like a recipe, make sure your innovation method is efficient. In innovation, you also need something that you can harness on demand. When I cook, I’m ok to use my Ipad the first time but I rapidly want to be able to throw the dish together without too much thinking.

Even a half-decent chef dislikes a blunt knife. A blunt tool in innovation is also disappointing. Lean Six Sigma, for example, seems to be good for getting a very detailed picture of current state and problematic areas but there is a massive creative leap to get us to the future state. Likewise, SIT is powerful in ideation and problem solving but is not designed for prototyping and testing. Agile and other methods will help more there…I think we should get good at identifying each tool and really knowing when it is blunt and when it is sharp and using is accordingly.

Just as we can we very favourably surprised by blending cuisines (we just watched a 22 year old take out the title of Masterchef of Australia with an amazing take on a pavlova with bold Sichuan flavours and beetroot!). Likewise, in my quest to inject different flavours and get different results, I am learning about other methods such as Frame Creation, Biomimicry, Jobs to be Done and so on to see where each one brings value…

Be sure that your method leads to something people want to consume. The ideas need to be desirable to the target audience. If it fails. Make sure everyone has a good laugh about it and lets you back in the kitchen for more. If the recipe is good, share it round! Teach others in the family to replicate it.

Oh, and just as it is rare that make a VIP test a new recipe, be sure that the output is tried and tested before ‘putting it on the table’.

Ultimately, even with the best recipes, the onus is on the person using it to follow the instructions and implement. If you under-prepare or overcook it, it will be apparent in the end result. So, bon appetit!

Rachel is an innovation and marketing facilitator, based in Melbourne.

Bias and blindspot buster.

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