Innovation When All You Have is a Noodle

Most of the inspirational innovation stories that we hear are about technology firms like Google, Amazon and Apple. This sometimes makes it difficult to help people find the connections to their work if they are in less sexy industries, like mining, education or government.

However, innovation is just as important in those industries as well.

There is a great story in the New York Times about the people that make food commercials (found via John Scalzi’s blog). The whole story is worth reading, but the bit that Scalzi quotes is notable:

“I make my living basically taking food and painting a reality with it,” says Mr. Somoroff, leaning back in a chair in his office as the team preps another set-up. “And if I succeed in a given moment, you’re going to go buy that dish because you’re going to identify with the experience we’ve created. To do that with something as banal as food is the challenge. I mean, it’s easy to go out and shoot a beautiful sunset or a beautiful girl. They’re beautiful, O.K.?”
He gestures toward the middle of the studio.
“I’ve got a noodle over here.”

Innovating in high tech firms is like taking pictures of a beautiful sunset – it’s relatively easy. Innovating when you’re in an industry that isn’t usually considered innovative can be a lot harder – it’s like taking a beautiful picture when all you’ve got is a noodle.

As the NYT story shows, the guys taking the food pictures have been incredibly inventive in figuring out how to do it well (although whether they’re creating value or not might be questionable). Here is what food looks like when you don’t do anything with it:

Noodle Soup

But they somehow manage to make even fast food look like something you might consider eating.

In the same way, you can innovate when you’re in “non-innovative” industries – in fact, if there’s a gap between where you currently are and where you want to be, you must.

John and I recently spent a couple of days working with an industrial firm that has been working hard to become more innovative. In an industry that is very cost-competitive they have taken the unusual step of adding an extra layer of management on their assembly line. On the surface, this looks crazy, but it’s an important management innovation.

With the extra line managers taking care of the problems that crop up each day, the rest of the managers have been able to focus on big picture issues. By doing this, and also working more closely with everyone on the line, they have introduced new production methods that have taken about $4 million per year out of their costs. Now that they have innovated to increase efficiency, they are turning their attention to implementing ideas that could substantially change their industry.

This innovation is the only thing that has kept them in business.

If the food guys can make noodles look great, and if the assembly line people can innovate in a historically non-innovative industry, then you can innovate too.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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3 thoughts on “Innovation When All You Have is a Noodle

  1. Pretty neat to see a company adding middle management to assist with innovation efforts. It’s a reflection of specialization, and something of an intermediary between the strategic and tactical. I think that’s an important area often neglected in business today.

    There’s also got to be a serious amount of trust being nurtured within this industrial organization. When upper management considers (and implements) ideas from the floor, the floor feels more a part of things.

    The best way to raise the bar is to start with the foundation.

  2. Thanks for the comment Brian. I agree, I thought it was great to see this working in practice. There’s still some skepticism about the whole thing down on the line, but overall, they’ve done incredibly well.

  3. Tim, that story about making a noodle worth a thousand words just made me ask what innovation really means. I bet it’s more than the advances we read every now and then on the subject of Web and Technology. As for me, I consider something as innovative when it can make a positive difference in a person’s life, regardless of what that idea/discovery is. Then, of course, if someone makes something so big it can bring about positive change to the world, I’d call that person an ‘innovation catalyst’. Just a thought.

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