Easy as Cake

bigstock--cake 159887675Many leaders talk about the need for innovation in their organizations, however, in far too many cases, true innovation seems elusive. In most instances, it is not a lack of desire or effort that that impedes results, but rather a lack of the right blend of organizational ingredients.

Think of it like baking a cake. You can get all the best ingredients, measured out in the right amounts and set them side-by-side (you have top quality HR, and quality assurance, and product development), but if that’s all you do, you will never have a cake. It is the mixing of ingredients, in specific amounts, . . . it’s the dicing, the blending, the baking . . . that yields a prize-winning cake.

In their book Innovation to the Core: A Blueprint for Transforming the Way your Company Innovates, Skarzynski and Gibson talk about innovation as “combinational chemistry.” In effect, innovation isn’t about a “new” idea so much as it is taking a group of existing ideas/concepts — maybe from totally different fields or experiences — and putting them together in unique ways to create an entirely new solution.

So, when an organization challenges its “creatives” with innovation but does not include task or systems-oriented colleagues, it’s a bit like leaving the baking powder out of a cake — the flavor may be there, but it will never rise to its potential. Or maybe you always expect your senior, most experienced, staff to have all the good ideas. You know, there are only so many ways to combine the same ingredients, and after a while, everything you make with them starts to taste the same.

It takes a range of ingredients to make the best cakes, but how often do we have a diverse enough set of perspectives, ways of thinking and experience bases (or lack thereof!) as part of the ingredient list? Do we let it bake long enough? (How many “half-baked” concepts have you thrown out, lacking the patience for the idea to fully develop?) It may seem risky to add a spice you have never used before, leave out a “key” ingredient, or to use a new technique that feels a bit awkward at first (flourless cake . . . how can that be?!?). If there is a challenge to be solved, however, someone will come up with an innovative response. The question is, will it be you?

Sure, you will have some flops along the way. And some of the attempts will yield unexpected and delicious results. The simple fact is, the more cakes you bake, the more comfortable you become experimenting and trying unique combinations. First-time innovators will probably be most comfortable following a recipe. That’s fine, there are plenty out there. With practice, however, you will learn how to combine things in such a way to yield an entirely new creation. And that, my friend, is when you get to have your cake . . . and eat it too!

Boiling It Down

A simmering pan of marinara sauce with fresh, colorful peppers c

I like to cook. And one of the skills I learned early on was that for the best results you need to allow time for things to reduce down, to simmer a bit so the extra moisture boils away and you are left with a more concentrated, robust flavor.

The same concept applies to your core organizational documents . . . your mission, vision, values, guiding principles, strategic framework, etc. Too often, organizations try to cram everything but the kitchen sink into these foundational “sauces”, and as a result everything comes out watered down, with no real flavor to distinguish it from another organization’s recipe. Granted, this approach is quicker and easier . . . just keep dumping ingredients in to make sure you don’t miss anything, give it a quick stir and call it good. Sure it’s rather bland . . . it’s not going to stand out in anyone’s memory as an amazing meal . . . but it covers the plate and fills people up.

I don’t know about you, but I think my organization and those it serves deserve more than something that covers the plate and fills people up. I want people to be able to look at our foundational documents and have a clear sense of who we are and what we’re about. How do you do that? Well, if I want to become a good cook, I am going to look to the best chef I can find for a few tips. So look around for an organization that you think has a powerful impact, and then take a look at their guiding purpose. Not that yours should look like theirs — it shouldn’t — but I’m guessing it might spark an awareness that sometimes less is more.

In an article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review (http://www.ssireview.org), Kevin Starr challenged organizations to “The Eight Word Mission Statement,” indicating that is “long enough to be specific and short enough to force clarity.” Top Nonprofits, in partnership with Third Sector Today, identified 30 top nonprofit vision statements (http://topnonprofits.com/examples/vision-statements/). The statements averaged 14.56 words, with the top 15 averaging 10.5 words. And in reading through the list, you know exactly what these organizations are about. If you’re going to be this concise, there is no room for what I call the “fuzzy foo foo” . . . you know those words that sound nice but nobody really knows what they mean.

Boiling your core organizational statements down to a clear but powerful focus means saying no be being all things to all people, which frankly is hard for many non-profits. What if a great opportunity comes along that doesn’t fit in that focus? . . . What if it does? If it isn’t related to the fundamental purpose of your organization, should you really be investing time and resources into it anyway?

One last thing about boiling your organizational recipe down to the essential ingredients . . . there is an energy and excitement that comes clearly communicating who you are and what you’re about. All of a sudden, your organization is bursting with the kind of flavor that keeps people coming back for more.

So how are things cooking in your organization? Bon appetite!