The Innovator’s Restaurant: Architecting for Creativity

June 1, 2012 § 1 Comment

Andrew Dunn from Insight Labs recently posted a call for metaphors about Iterating imagination:

Creativity. Structure. The two are normally thought to be at odds. But for a large organization to produce imaginative results again and again, it must have a structure that anticipates reinvention.

He listed four models they came up with:

  • Church and Statethese two ways of thinking access different parts of the brain and people with radically different skill sets
  • Turn! Turn! Turn!The relationship between reinvention and maximization is a natural cycle
  • Planned Obsolescenceafter a set period,  switch to reinvention mode and rebuild the strategy
  • The Star Within a Star: the overall system is built in a way to blow things up again and again
These aren’t bad metaphors for organizational structure.  But, as I told Benedict Nelson, I fear they miss the most important point.
In my experience over the last fifteen years as a Product Manager in Silicon Valley, the most difficult aspects of sustaining creativity are:
  • Managing it (authority)
  • Paying for it (economics)

Both of these are extremely difficult to balance properly.  If you have too much management  — or worry too much about money — you stifle creativity.  But if you have too little, you never ship a profitable product.  Either way, you lose.

To me, finding the right way to balance those concerns is the central challenge of organizational design. Yet none of the above metaphors even seem to hint at that tension.

So I invented my own. I call it the Innovator’s Restaurant.

I consider a chef-owned restaurant  the perfect metaphor for sustaining creativity because it combines artistic aspirations with hard-nosed economics, and relentless production with never-ending innovation.  Plus, it is more than a metaphor — you can look at actual examples of innovative and successful restaurants to see how they work.

To be clear, I know nothing about the food service industry beyond some late nights watching The Food Network.  But a high-end restaurant — at least in my idealized vision — captures many of the key tensions faced by any organization that aspires to repeated innovation:

  1. The head honcho must have great taste yet always keep one eye on the bottom line.
  2. The financial specialists (business managers) are highly valued, but always subordinate to the artistic vision.
  3. Product lines are always a mix of old standbys, “sustaining” innovations (remixing existing ingredients and processes), and “disruptive” innovations (inspired by the availability of new ingredients and techniques).
  4. Every cook has some freedom to experiment, but the head chef must approve anything served to customers.
  5. Experimentation is cheap (“daily specials”, “compliments of the chef”), but only profitable dishes get a permanent place on the menu (no 64-oz truffle milkshakes on tap!).
  6. Marketing (presentation) is an integral part of product development, because the primary goal is to delight humans.
  7. New hires work on repetitive tasks and products as they develop both skill and taste.
  8. There are multiple levels of continuous feedback: individual, peer, channel (waiter), customer, reviewer, etc.
  9. A sedate and predictable public face hides massive chaos and improvisation in the back of the house.
  10. If you stop moving forward, you die.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but hopefully it helps explain why I find this metaphor so compelling.  Let me know your reactions in the comments or on Twitter.

Update:  Steve Denning apparently had the same idea, as he interviewed an actual chef from a real Innovator’s Restaurant, and fortunately validated many of my speculations. 🙂

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