I Found an Unlikely Ingredient on the Label of Innovation
Updated: Mar 5, 2019
(Photo: 2015, Jackie's Cookie Babies as originally packaged in zip bags)
When I started writing this blog, I didn't know if anyone at all would read it. Turns out, a whole bunch of you are. I appreciate that. Out of respect for my newly found audience I wanted to let you know that I'm still writing as it pours out of me. That means that sometimes, the posts will be perfectly brief. Others, may go on a bit. This is one of the latter. I say this because I value your time as I would value mine. I wanted to let you know this post may be better suited for your pre-boarding time at the airport, rather than your pre-latte time at Starbucks. So, I owe you a short one - I'll make that the next post :-) That said, here come some of my thoughts on innovation. Enjoy.
As a small business owner, there are words I hear over and over. Some, such as “receivables” (she makes a happy face), “payables” (sad face), “capacity”, “acquisition cost”, and “cash flow”, are understandably a functional part of my daily world. Then there are others; words and phrases that buzz around like flies in a vacuum (as in void, not Dyson). Of those, the buzz-word that always seems to make the most noise is “innovation”.
in·no·vate - make changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas, or products
I’ve stopped for a few moments here and there, and considered articles, blog posts or social media threads focusing on innovation. Sometimes it was because there was a success story pulling at my heartstrings. Other times I was intrigued by a product or process - especially the ones that make you wonder how we ever did it any other way (remember texting on a numerical keypad ... what were we thinking?). Of course there were other times it just happened to be the next article up on my LinkedIn thread when I fell asleep with the phone on my face (a more common occurrence that I care to admit). No matter the source though, the underlying theme was of course, change.
change - synonym: modify, alter, transform, revise
That seemed interesting to me because change is not something to which we are naturally attracted. Now that I have had to manage people in my own business, I can say for certain, regardless of their background, education or experience, people just tend to resist change. Yet there was still this whole innovation thing that was all about change. So it struck me that there was more to innovation than innovating. What I mean is, while we're on our way towards modifying, altering, transforming and revising, things, there must have been something which occurred prior to or during the process to make that change (innovation) possible. What made those people become capable of getting over the mental gridlock caused by the thought of having to change? What was the missing ingredient? What I discovered really surprised me.
Over the past four years, I've gone from making big, soft cookies that I sold one at a time, handed to someone in nothing more than a napkin, to baking hundreds of thousands of little crunchity cookies a day, packaged in high quality containers, labeled, weighed, checked, re-checked and sold all over the United States. In that time, I've had to change (read: modify, alter, transform, revise) - I mean, innovate more than just a few times.
I'm a researcher. I like to problem solve. But I need a problem. I need a question. I need a starting point. Initially I came up with, "if innovation is change, is change always innovation"? That seemed to be the obvious question. But it was too esoteric. It wasn't personal enough. There was another question though. There was a question off in the distance, that really caught my attention. It wasn't about innovation in general. It was about my own innovation. What is my innovation process? Why and how did I make changes? Why didn't I leave well enough alone? Now I had a few questions that felt right and that I could sink my teeth into. I made a list.
I didn't love what I did last time.
What I created didn't work the way I wanted it to.
I was bored with that last thing.
It doesn't make sense financially
It's not "on brand"
Those initial answers may have all been credible but just not satisfying to me. They fairly represented the "why" but didn't at all address the matter "how". How did I actually go about the process of conceiving, cultivating and completing something different that went from a place of "this is great" to "actually that was not so good, and this is way better"?
So I thought about the changes I had made. Even after I had moved from big cookies to little ones, there was so much more to come. Bags, buckets, tubs, tins and tubes. Varieties. Labels. Taglines. Yes, there were changes for sure. Fortunately most of them were visually documented and all I had to do was go back through some old photos. I've included some of them below, with brief thoughts.
After a good deal of self-reflection, I discovered something all at once humbling, mildly embarrassing, and exactly the answer I was seeking.
When I began packing Jackie's Cookie Babies in bags, it worked. People bought them. But I knew the bags weren't what I wanted. Initially I needed to get the cookies out there and needed something that made sure people could see what they were buying. I wanted them to see even the very bottom of the package, because I had (and still do have) the belief that real cookies make real crumbs, and people will understand. I was more interested in them being able to see everything they were buying, even if some of it was a few crumbs. Mission accomplished.
Customers who had quickly becomes fans, provided feedback specifically referencing the fact that they appreciated the transparent packaging. The bags sold. Yet today, you will not find a single one of our Jackie's Cookie Babies packaged in bags. What happened?
When I went to the stores where they sold my cookies, it was great to see them, but I couldn't help but feeling a little frustrated. The cookies were so good. They had all the right stuff. They looked great, tasted great, and even sounded great when you took a bite. They were as unique as I had wanted them to be. Except for the package. The bag wasn't representative of the whole of what the cookies were. I wanted something more. I wanted something better. I wanted something special. There was plenty of packaging out there. I found boxes in the shape of houses (think Dunkin' Donuts Munchkins), clear boxes (ala, Sugarfina), those hinged lid plastic things, and wide variety of other items I could have used to package my cookies. None felt right. I went to the grocery store. Then another. There was nothing on the shelf that spoke to me. There was nothing (at least in the cookie aisle) that screamed, "look, these are special". Faced with no real solution, I decided to just let the bags sell and in the background I started amassing any type of packaging I could find that was entirely transparent. There was no timeline, even though the bags bothered me pretty much daily. Some months later, when I was not working on it at all, I stumbled on a tube. It was a big tube, about a foot tall. It was extremely clear and rigid. I loved it. I ordered some samples. They were perfect (as innovation would have it, they were of course not exactly perfect, but they were perfect for the moment). As I looked back at the photos of that time, I realize that had I pushed myself to make a change from the bags, at the very height of when they were aggravating me, I might have gone another route. I would have committed to something else. And I definitely wouldn't have found those tubes - packaging which has become synonymous with my brand. As it turned out, it was as much my inaction as my action that aided the process of finding a solution.
Wait, what? Inaction? That feels an awful lot like a word that is a self-imposed no-no in my world. It sounds a whole lot like something I push my kids to never do.
I think the word I was pretending wasn't the answer, but really was, was ... sorry, bear with me ... I'm having a little trouble getting it out ... I think, I mean maybe, it could be that here and there, once or twice, I uh, maybe could have possibly, p-r-o-c-r-a-s-t-I-n-a-t-e-d my way to a solution.
Ok, stop. Breathe. Again. I need a minute. Where is that meditation app I downloaded and never use?
Could it be? (She grabs her phone ... click, tap, click ... dictionary.com)
pro·cras·ti·nate - delay or postpone action
Oh no! That was me. I did that. I think I may have done it more than once!
Waiting on adding shrink bands to our packaging rather than those silly tape strips we were going to do as a knee-jerk reaction to wanting a better closure for the tubes; using the fully closed boxes we use for shipping online packages (where people don't see the product as they do on a store shelf) rather than developing the really cute open-window boxes we now have on display in stores; more ...
I've been busy innovating for years. Yet, somehow in each case, there was something about delaying an action, postponing a decision, that made it work.
After a stiff drink (and what I mean by that is a sugar-free, vanilla, soy, no-foam latte) I gave it some thought and realized that while procrastination isn't something you would ever profess proudly on your resume as a key attribute, it does have its place. As a leader where continuous communication of clear directives and thoughtful decision-making often goes hand-in-hand with breathing, it's important to know all the tools in your toolbox, or all the spices in your pantry. As it turns out, a pinch of procrastination was in fact an ingredient in certain recipes for innovation. But where in the cabinet should it live?
A final thought on this as I try to find some comfortable context in which to place a word which ranks high on the scale of negative connotations. Does this fall under the heading of "being a successful leader means stepping out of your comfort zone"? Is it similar to the process of using venom to create anti-venom? I guess in the final analysis, this reminds me of the oft-used phrase, "keep your friends close and your enemies closer". To manage it effectively, procrastination, the enemy of progress, perhaps should be kept closer - right there behind and to the left of the sugar.
Oh hey, I think they just called your flight.