Innovation through Stubborn Commitment

Thinking about innovation lately. Not just what it is and if/how/why it is good but rather the factors that create a culture of innovation.

Innovation defined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Innovation defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary
A lot has been written about managing to create and foster an innovation-friendly organization (more on that below). Great resources and research out there.

But it seems that sometimes – maybe most of the time – innovation needs a champion that is just really committed. Or stubborn. Someone wants to see a certain result and won’t take “no” for an answer. Often, there is a reason for the “no” and it takes a new way of doing things to get to the goal.

Recently, I wrote about “Innovate and Thrive: The Future of Nonprofits” by Randal Moss and David Neff. Moss and Neff take a hard look at how to design and maintain a culture that focuses on innovation. Of course, innovation for the sake of innovation is not the point. Yet most every organization and business – from coolio tech startup to retail to auto repair shop to restaurant – is constantly competing, coping with change and trying to, well, keep its head above water in its ever-shifting environment.

Moss and Neff do a great job covering some key pieces of innovation culture and ways to design that culture into the organization. Design – of processes, positions and programs – seems intrinsic to an innovation-friendly environment.

Sometimes, though, you just have to be committed enough to an idea to break past the “usual” way of doing things, change your framework and reach your goal in a new way.

I recently came upon an interesting example of busting out of the usual process when reading stories about Grant Achatz’ Alinea and Next restaurants. Alinea is considered by many to be the best restaurant in America and one of the best in the world. Next opened this past Spring and is committed to not just recreating but outdoing great historical menus.

A recent Chicago Magazine article took a look at some of the business decisions made by Achatz and Kokonas while running Alinea and building Next. Kokonas, a highly successful trader at one time, decided very early on to approach the business side of Alinea a bit different than what was usual in the restaurant world. Basically, he wanted to control debt and ensure that he and Achatz retained creative control and ownership over the enterprise and all of its intellectual property.

A few years ago they wanted to create an Alinea cookbook. Known for its tasting courses and small bite food they knew that photos – lots of them – would be needed to help tell the story of Alinea’s recipes. They weren’t happy with the way photos in cookbooks were typically done – inserted into the book in clumps and not necessarily tied to the recipe. The alternatives seemed to be go with the standard way of clumping photos together in the book or charging far more than they wanted, up to $75 per copy.

These options didn’t fit what they had in mind. Kokonas and Achatz wanted the cookbook to be accessible to help spread the word about Achatz’ food AND produce a gorgeous book that really told the story of the food. Instead of compromising they made lots of calls and found a way to self-publish the book at a reasonable price. Perhaps due to the quality and use of photos the book has gone on to sell far better than any “real” publishing house they consulted expected.

If you read the recently released “Life, On the Line: A Chef’s Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat” by Achatz and his business partner Nick Kokonas then you won’t be surprised by this story of persistence in putting together the Alinea cookbook. Their success is really a story of stubborn commitment to a vision and the patience to innovate in order to achieve their goals.

One can, and should, nurture innovation in the organization. But often it is just a matter of confidence, passion and, well, a stubborn commitment to vision.

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