What bread, Apple and Yahoo can teach us about innovation


We’re the survivors, the pinnacle of human achievement. Well done, us! We’ve learned from our parents, and their ancestors, and we’ve improved on so many things they accomplished. Our ancestors made bread, our parents sliced it, and we have idiot-proof machines that make it at home, over night, so we can wake to our perfect artisan multi-seed loaf every morning. We’re done … right? It can’t get better than this.

But as George Bernard Shaw said: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

So many of us have adapted to our perfect artisan multi-seed loaf, smugly eating our healthy breakfast, happy in the knowledge that life really is better now than it has ever been. Or have we?

Because actually, Shaw was right. We – consumers, clients, managers, directors, all of us – are an unreasonable, dissatisfied bunch, demanding more, better, healthier, and friendlier, but we want someone else to give it to us.

At the Coupe Louis Lesaffre, the bakery world cup, they’re looking to the future of bread. So what can we – the non-innovators – expect to be the next best thing since sliced bread our perfect homebaked artisan multi-seed morning loaf?

“In the future, we can imagine [consumers] torn between the desire for a balanced diet, the need for practicality, the notion of gustatory enjoyment, respect for the environment, the health benefits advocated by certain products … No doubt about it, we face a real challenge!” says Cecile Chevreux. 

“Consumers are now more critical, more in-the-know than before,” she says. Unreasonable as we are, we now want our bread at the same time as helping the environment and being socially aware:

“The integration of sustainable development into the strategies of the industry’s businesses could have a real impact on future innovation. Social evolution, political and regulatory pressures, transformation in distribution and sustainable development methods… all of these must be considered in modern day innovation.”

The weight on the shoulders of innovators is increasingly heavy, and not just in the bread industry.

But there’s a problem.

Businesses know there is a constant need to keep moving forward, so they pile pressure on their leadership and research and development teams. It’s no wonder tensions run high, and people are stressed trying to find the next best thing. Emphasis is so clearly on the financial reward and market success that actually focusing on the business of innovating is often lost under mountains of pressure, producing an environment that rarely leads to creativity and innovation.

For many, the feeling of not being good enough creates so much tension that it stops us from functioning effectively. As Kathryn Schulz in her Tedtalk ‘On Being Wrong’ explains, “we’ve been told from a very young age that being wrong is bad.”

“By the time you are nine years old, you’ve already learned, first of all, that people who get stuff wrong are lazy, irresponsible dimwits — and second of all, that the way to succeed in life is to never make any mistakes. […] We freak out at the possibility that we’ve gotten something wrong. Because […] getting something wrong means there’s something wrong with us. So we just insist that we’re right, because it makes us feel smart and responsible and virtuous and safe.”

So with pressure coming from external sources as well as ourselves, it is fair to wonder how innovation happens at all.  

“A feeling of near-desperation or fear of failure is extremely uncomfortable, but it’s also motivating — it’s often the impetus that drives innovation,” explains Jennifer Robison in Gallup’s Business Journal.

According to Thomas Specq at Innovation Excellence, “That fear of rejection, the fear of what’s out there and the fear of “not good enough”. You have to challenge your assumptions […] to create a completely new reality, to establish a new chain of being or relationships and to generate a new perspective on a problem.”

And it’s the people who move away from the tension and fear of being wrong, of failing, of making mistakes who are the unreasonable ones – the Steve Jobs, the Thomas Edisons, the Marie Curies, the Grace Hoppers.

“It’s the freedom to make mistakes, to explore the unknown and challenge the norm that opens up a world of possibilities,” says Albert Bandura, Ph.D., of Stanford University, who explored the idea that perceived self-efficacy enhances a number of positive outcomes, including achievement drive, anger management, and mastery of stress.

“You can’t have hope and optimism if you’re convinced your efforts will be futile. People who persist and take risks generally have an optimistic view of the world; what’s more, progress — in society and organizations — depends on these ‘unreasonable’ people.”

Steve Crabtree in his Gallup Business Journal article, The Power of Positive Management, summarizes that “Bandura’s conclusion applies as easily to companies as it does to societal systems: Those who cultivate competency and who trust individuals with self-directedness improve the chances that people will become what they want to be.”

Similarly, in the process of innovation, mistakes should be treated not as disasters but as another step closer to success.

“Setbacks are an inevitable part of any innovation process and integral to managing innovation,” says Andrew Gaule of InnovationManagement. “Indeed, some are a necessity, since they provide the learning opportunities that ensure only the fittest ideas survive.” 

This culture of discomfort and tension in the innovation chamber clearly pays off in terms of break throughs.

In her article Innovation the Right Way, Jennifer Robison notes that “Many of the most successful businesses of the recent past — notably Apple Computers, Google, and Toyota Motors — institutionalized innovation as part of their long-term business strategy, and their innovations are legendary. They invest in creativity and accept short-term financial loss because they’re willing to bet on future long-term profit.”

At the same time, Business Insider reports that “of the top 200 companies on the Best Employers list, tech to work. Intel (39%), eBay (36%), Apple (33%), IBM (33%), and Amazon (27%) have the most stressful work environments, with employees reporting poor scores on the ‘low job stress’ scale.”

It seems the big tech companies manufacture a highly demanding and stressful work environment for a reason. Steve Johnson, author and a long-time contributor to wired.com, believes he knows the reason: “If you look at history, innovation doesn’t come just from giving people incentives; it comes from creating environments where their ideas can connect. 

And Robby Stein, a director of product management at Yahoo, clearly supports that. He told Business Insider he “believes that Yahoo employees stay because they know that they can contribute to today’s changing technological landscape. ‘The thing I like best about Yahoo is the freedom I’ve been given to create new mobile technologies.’” 

Accepting, and even encouraging pressure to drive innovation, leads to success. Forcing people to work outside their comfort zones, where they feel safe but are ineffective, and instead move into the arena of constructive challenge moves the world another step into a future that refuses to accept the status quo and instead continues to improve on the artisan multi-seed morning loaf.

How do you innovate? What inspires your creativity?











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