A SPICY RECIPE FOR AGILITY AND INNOVATION

Jane von Kirchbach, Board Member

Jane von Kirchbach,

Board Member

Throughout my career, I have been fortunate to have opportunities to travel and live abroad. Whenever I travel, I take time to understand the culture, values, and the customs of working with my international colleagues.

Personally, I enjoy exploring the local cuisine. I find food offers a unique window into the culture of a country or a community while providing a powerful platform for building human connections.  

In my quest to experience local flavors, I took a Thai cooking class during a trip to Bangkok. It was a unique and refreshing experience. Western cooking techniques require focused study of a recipe, precise measurement of ingredients, and careful execution of instructions. Thai cooking, on the other hand, involves no recipes and no measurements. In its place, you rely on core techniques coupled with diverse ingredients, high heat, spice, and speed. Most importantly, you are expected to continuously taste and season your dish trusting your taste buds to create a perfect combination of flavors.

The Thai cooking experience enriched my skills in the kitchen and offered me some interesting business and leadership insights: 

Taste, Season, Repeat. Classical western cuisine is built upon complex techniques, long cooking processes, and inability to taste the dish until the end. Not that different from our traditional approach to business and technology projects.

Early mistakes are not evident until late in the process - time is lost, resources are wasted, and there is no dinner on the table! In Thai cooking, you begin tasting your creation and making adjustments throughout the entire cooking process. This early and iterative feedback-correction loop is key to introducing agility into our business endeavors.

Eat Bitesize Projects. In today's business environment, we face large complex problems to be solved quickly and effectively. Best practice asserts we break problems down into smaller components. While intuitive, most organizations do not leverage this technique sufficiently.

I challenge my teams with "No project longer than 3 months!" While it may be an aspirational goal, it forces us to think in new ways and try new approaches. When facing complex problems, think of bitesize deliverables like an Asian stir-fry instead of a 12 oz steak!

Try that Scorpion. Thailand is an amazing country, full of diverse and unusual ingredients. I remember walking through a local market with stands full of roasted and fried scorpions, a tasty snack for many Thais. Would you try a roasted scorpion?

As leaders, we are in a unique position to set the tone for the organization. Are you willing to take risks, attempt new approaches, and explore new business models? Are you willing to be vulnerable and accept failure? Creating a culture of innovation requires us to take a deep introspective look and challenge our own habits, beliefs, and expectations. Let's taste that roasted scorpion! 

Spark the Fire.  Fire is a key ingredient in Asian cooking. High heat is necessary to create fast and flavorful dishes. How can you generate the heat necessary to fuel creativity and speed in your organization?

A "burning platform" is one possibility. It can be a powerful driver for strategic change, creating wide-spread energy and rapid alignment. However, "burning platforms" are not always feasible or ideal for creating lasting culture change.

There is a better way!

If your organization has a dozen or more people, sub-cultures and counter-cultures are bound to have developed. Among these cultures, there is a good chance the mindset you need is already present. Instead of trying to drive large-scale culture change from the ground up, you can build offwhat's already there. The key is to identify areas where the right sparks exist, raise them into the spotlight, and encourage their propagation from niche to mainstream. 

While titled "A Spicy Recipe for Agility and Innovation", I am convinced the secret sauce is to also learn to cook without a recipe. 

Teaching your teams to reduce blind dependencies on established approaches is a great way to change thinking, spark innovation, and deliver breakthrough results. Mindfully, you have to remain structured, organized and compliant.

I encourage you to cook without a recipe once in a while!