French Gastronomy gained success from codification, whether it be Antonin Carême (1783-1833) codifying the 4 mother sauces or Auguste Escoffier (1846-1935) codifying the management and organization of the kitchen. Can this same cartesian spirit apply to innovation? Or should we inspire ourselves from gastronomy itself to at last manage innovation properly?
Innovation seems to be the holy grail for many, the ultimate quest, yet impossible to attain. Some would like to chart a linear path and tame the untamable. Different fads and philosophies come and go and yet none manages to offer a satisfactory approach to properly implement innovation and extrude its divine nectar.
In France, even the national organization for standardization AFNOR is mingling with the subject, to the point of wanting to « normalize » the entire process. Innovation being by definition the unknown, one can only wonder what sterile deep freeze meal will come of this initiative. Especially when one recognizes that one major issue is precisely an excess of management.
This initiative reminded me of an exchange with a former colleague who stayed on with 3M, a mighty fallen angel of innovation. This colleague had been promoted to Six Sigma Innovation Process director. Needless to say, the latitude of discovery was as broad as a chef in a straitjacket. This initiative, better at delivering a million burger paddies with a variation of less than half the quarter of hair, was as far away from innovation and creativity as we are presently from Hubble.
This took place in the early 2000 and may have occurred in response to a growing trend at that time, coming from Silicon Valley, consisting in programming from a couch and explaining that it is forbidden to forbid and that constraints should not be.
Too many startups have fallen astray because of this adulescent reflex, wandering erratically from one can of soda to the other.
Excessive structure as much as excessive laisser aller are to blame for poor results. Wanting to manage every step or on the contrary pivoting incessantly are the two antipodes of this field and few are capable, at reasonable expense, to find a constructive middle ground.
Let it be known that gastronomy may offer a perfect inspiration for yearning entrepreneurs and other innovators. Innovation may even be astray because many business people in their overzealous and productivity oriented approach have overlooked Gastronomy, assigning it to a secondary table at the back of the restaurant under the unwarranted accusation of excessive futility.
But anyone who understands the ceremony of the table will recognize quickly the benefit of this approach as it allows creativity to unravel and untangle itself within a flexible and nurturing form.
While as innovation creates new ways of perceiving the world, gastronomy occupies itself with new ways of conversing about it. The meal enhances or constrains this creative potential just as a framework will allow an innovation to take form or on the contrary stunt its growth.
Both innovation and gastronomy strive to reunite individuals in a very similar process consisting of three major acts. The first consists in finding common ground, the second in fine tuning and the third in diffusion.
For centuries now there has been a sequence in any elaborate dinner. It varies over the ages but comes down to certain fundamentals. There is the potage, the fish, the roast and the entremets, then cheese and desert. They are served one after the other, not all at once. The number of plates and amuse-bouche or trou normand can vary from one circumstance to another, but they all serve the great benefit of nurturing conversation.
A properly sequenced dinner can carry a conversation a long way, allowing the hosts and guests to eventually attain a depth of creativity which can rarely be even perceived when everything is served at once.
Too little ceremony corresponds to one school of thought which refuses anything formal. The result is that all the plates are served at once, guests stuff themselves, ingurgitate liquids at the same speed and no sooner has the meal started than the guests are bloated and too busy digesting to generate any constructive conversation.
Likewise, many inventions never become innovations because no time is given to preparing the appetite, no breath is given to opening the conversation, no patience is offered for all to align their spirits. Speed, then, is the mantra and no decent amount of time is offered simply to recognize that iterations will be necessary.
Inversely, too much formalism which doesn’t take into account the group dynamic, the troughs and crests in creative conversation, will lead to a sterile result. Excessive process, serving or clearing the table à contre-temps, will kill the dynamics of the table, just as our national norm institution may, only for the sake of offering managers a good conscience, kill the creative spark within a group.
Hence, a funnel is necessary, that will offer the chaos of conversation and spirits to gather in a constructive and enriching direction.
As with innovation, my preferred framework is the nine step dinner. The apéritif, amuse-bouche and potage offer time for all to connect. The fish, the roast and the trou normand allow the conversation to take hold with common roots. Finally, the entremets, the cheese and the desert allow for a full fledged expansion of this jovial spirit carried in a communion of hearts and minds.
There is no well thought out day without a thought out meal. Hence gastronomic principles can serve as the alpha and omega of worldly activities, including business practices.