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Featured image: From Creators to Coaches: Chick-fil-A’s Innovation Transformation

From Creators to Coaches: Chick-fil-A’s Innovation Transformation

Prof. Michael McCathren, Sr Principal and Head of Innovation Services at Chick-fil-A, Inc & Former Adjunct Professor at University of Georgia

"How can you create this army of everyday innovators throughout your organization? Whether it's 100 people or 100,000 employees, democratizing innovation is key." 

In this episode of Innovation Rockstars, we feature Michael McCathren, Senior Principal for Enterprise Innovation at Chick-fil-A, and former Adjunct Professor at the University of Georgia.

Michael shares his incredible journey from a 15-year-old restaurant worker to leading innovation at Chick-fil-A. Discover how his team transformed from project execution to becoming in-house innovation consultants, democratizing innovation across the company. Learn about their unique approach to fostering a culture of innovation, including consulting, facilitation, and leveraging Gen-AI.

This episode is a must-listen for corporate leaders and innovation enthusiasts looking to understand how to foster a culture of innovation, scale innovation and drive impactful change. Tune in to learn about best practices and strategies for scaling innovation across large teams.

Below you will find the full transcript for the episode.

From Creators to Coaches: Chick-fil-A’s Innovation Transformation

Chris: Michael, you began working in the restaurant business at 15 years old, riding your bike back and forth to K-Bop's Steakhouse in Texas. And today you lead Enterprise Innovation in the Innovation and New Ventures Group as Senior Principal for Enterprise Innovation at Chick-fil-A. You're also a best-selling author of a book called "6Ps of Essential Innovation," which we're gonna talk about later. And you're an adjunct professor. Tell me about your story.

Michael: Yeah, that's a good setup. Thanks. Thanks for being here. Thanks for giving me some airtime here on your podcast. I grew up in West Texas and yeah, you're right, I got a job early on in a restaurant. And as I went to high school, summer and holidays, I tried to work in a restaurant there. Then I went into college thinking I'd never have to work in a restaurant again because it was hectic, it was demanding, it was fun, but at the same time, it was a lot. So I thought, well, I don't want to do that again. Sure enough, The best job I could find was in a restaurant. And I loved it. And it sort of just became in my blood over the college career that I had. Graduated college, and applied to many advertising agencies with my marketing degree. In the meantime, trying to land the job, I went back to managing a restaurant. And in this case, this restaurant was a fledgling franchise operation in Dallas, Texas. And I eventually moved my way into the marketing department, which was new, grew sort of my marketing chops there, made a lot of mistakes, and then just kind of went to other areas of the restaurant operations. I went to restaurant finance and strategic planning. I did a little bit of supply chain management and procurement, IT management, and all through these, within the restaurant industry.

And then in 2003, joined Chick-fil-A in their marketing department, and then had the opportunity to start a new group doing new work at Chick-fil-A. We called it "Interactive Digital Marketing". So we stood up all the social media, all the online presence, all the mobile presence, and so forth. And after that kind of grew, I had some amazing leaders that that work could go to. And that freed me up to look somewhere else internally. And the innovation position was open. And I was using our innovation process, it's a five-step process that was developed around 2010. I was using that in my marketing. Instead of doing the typical marketing brief, that's 15 pages long or whatever, I decided to approach it with the innovation process of understanding and imagining and then prototyping. It was a three-page proposal which was accepted. And I thought "Man, the idea of innovation, that approach of human-centered design, has worked everywhere I've tried to plug it in, even personally, in my personal life."

"I finally found this thing called innovation process. I'd never seen it before and I've been working there for years or whatever the story was and it was one story like that after another after another and it was just I thought man what a waste. These companies are investing so much money, effort, and resources into innovation, and yet they have thousands of people who could be amazing, creative problem solvers who are not leveraging it."

So I just became more and more committed to it, and that's why I wanted to get a Master's of Innovation. That's what led to eventually writing the book. I thought other people should know about this, so I was an adjunct professor at the University of Georgia for three years and I got, this front-row seat of companies, global companies, you would recognize the brands who were struggling to make innovation a deeper capability throughout the organization instead of just having, one group that was, in charge of all the ideas or several groups that only work together. How can you create this army of everyday innovators throughout your organization? Whether it's 100 people or 100,000 employees. It was, it was the insights and the experiences I was hearing from these people. Some did innovation really well. For example, one of the assignments was, hey, present your company's innovation process. How is it defined and how do you use it every day? Seems like a pretty easy assignment. And it turns out these guys and girls had had a career and they've skinned their knees on some projects. I mean they had some experience. I didn't know where to find it. I had to ask so many people. I had to go online through the internet and in the bowels of the files I finally found this thing called innovation process. I'd never seen it before and I've been working there for years or whatever the story was and it was one story like that after another after another and it was just I thought man what a waste. These companies are investing so much money, effort, and resources into innovation, and yet they have thousands of people who could be amazing, creative problem solvers who are not leveraging it.

Chris: 2003. So that means, Michael, you're in your, what is it, 21st year with Chick-fil-A? Is that correct?

Michael: Yeah, it is.

Chris: Wow. What made you stay with a company for so long? I feel this is getting more and more rare these days.

Michael: It is. It is. Well, it's all about growth. And as long as you're with a growing company, you get to try new things. You get to take new ground because we're doing new things that we've never done before. And, the food industry, especially fast food, that's not the first industry you think of when you think, oh, innovation. Yeah, fast food. that's all about optimizing the production and the throughput and the transaction, get them in and get them out kind of thing. And Chick-fil-A's just, yes, that's true of Chick-fil-A, but we invest so much more in the relationship forming piece with our operators, that's what we call our franchisees, and how they invest in their team members to give them a positive influence or a positive experience through their positive influence. And that bleeds over to, spills over to the customers. If they enjoy their work, Then customers see that and they feel that and they want to come back. And it's kind of been our secret sauce. So it's been a, it's been a more expansive take on what it is like to create a restaurant experience through a fast food concept like Chick-fil-A. And that has opened more and more doors again, because of growth to try new things. And so innovation has always had this fuel behind it at Chick-fil-A. So that's why I stay specifically in Europe, where McDonald's is very strong in coverage and also in Germany.

"As long as you're with a growing company, you get to try new things. You get to take new ground because we're doing new things that we've never done before."

Chris: Yeah, I, agree. I mean, the fast food industry might not be the number one, uh, that comes to your mind if you think about innovation, but for example, McDonald's, I think they did a very good job in, transforming the experience onsite in the restaurant. With some of the things, they made it just easier for you to collect your food. They made it easier to order with the self-ordering terminals they have. So it's small adjustments over time, but as a sum, they kind of compound and make the experience worthwhile, if you compare it back 15 years, 20 years ago, how it was back then. So I think, yeah, I think there is a lot of room to do this, but also in many different areas, for sure.

Michael: Yeah, well, I think that transformation is key. Especially in our industry, as in most industries, the demand of the consumer and their preference pulls us in this direction or that direction so that we can adapt to the changing needs of the consumer. Convenience has been one of those transformational areas that continue to influence a lot of the strategic imperatives that we have and our competition has as well.

Democratizing Innovation at Chick-fil-A

Chris: So at Chick-fil-A, your team transitioned from being at the frontline of innovation projects to leading a team that acts more like, I guess you said, in-house consultants. And that is very interesting. So, you had the process and then you had a journey within Chick-fil-A. Talking about transformation, I think that’s also a really interesting transformation for an innovation team to not only execute and do the projects and implement them but also to turn into this internal in-house consultancy. How did this transformation come about? What inspired it?

Michael: Great question. When I took on this role, It's been about seven years. The first thing I did was I wanted to understand the organization's perspective on innovation. So I spent 12 months of a lot of one-on-one conversations. I mean, dozens and dozens of conversations. And I would ask them just a few questions. One is, what do you believe about innovation? And everybody I talked to gave me a different answer. What do you believe about our innovation process? Well, some of them could tell me all five steps and some of them couldn't, and some of them had a perspective and some of them didn't really. And then the third question is how does innovation show up in your day-to-day work? And I had a handful of power users that they knew all those answers. They had a perspective and they were using the process, but almost 95% of everybody I talked to. I didn't have any answers for that stuff. And I'm like, oh my gosh. At that point, that was probably 2017-ish. From 2010, we've had a process in place. We've done a lot of educating the organization on this process. And yet here we are, seven years into that back in 2017. And it's gone to waste because people aren't, internalizing it and they're not applying it. So that's when I thought, okay, let me keep peeling back the onion here and ask them, why is it not part of your daily work? Tell me more about your daily work. What are your challenges? What are your, what are some of the things, what are some of the things, the goals that you hope to reach by the end of the year? And so they would describe those. I said, would you be interested in getting to better solutions faster? And of course, everybody was like, well, yeah, I think that's, well, then how about I come beside you? Because it was just me at that point. And let me get into the work a little bit, be a thought partner, but also be a designer in this process to get to better solutions faster. So I kind of cut my teeth on a lot of different processes and approaches and methods and became, just this consultant to them, and, The demand for these kinds of services began to grow, so my team began to grow, and we are definitely an innovation services. We have a group now. We have weekly client meetings because we call the projects and project leaders clients internally. We're behaving just as if we were an external, uh, external, uh, consulting firm because that's who we ultimately are competing with. All these project teams have the, have the option to go to UI, KPMG, whatever it is. And acquire these services for a time, we've got to compete against those. So that's kind of how we've positioned ourselves.

Chris: That is a very interesting positioning. It's interesting how your team competes against either the best of external choices that Chick-fil-A probably has too. So you need to win new business. And for example, what does that look like? Do you pitch against external vendors? What is the team's setup for success to win against them?

Michael: Yeah, that's a great question. I think we're still trying to figure that out. We have all the initiatives that go into our annual planning. They have a couple of opportunities in that form to identify themselves as an innovation project. They also have a list of internal resources they think they need for the project that they're proposing for next year. And innovation services are an option. So we have at the end of planning a list of projects that feel like they may want our services. But there isn't a lot of explanation on what innovation services are in that form. So a lot of people don't check it. So we go to, we do our own little customer sourcing and try to push out that message and awareness, but at the same time we are fielding more and more, especially since the beginning of the year, just since the beginning of the year, we've engaged with over 50 internal clients that have reached out to us first. So I think we're gaining traction, but that engagement model that we have, we, we've developed a pretty tight step and, uh, process on how that works. Uh, my team came up with a form where you can in, in, on our intranet site, click on, schedule, uh, an appointment with an innovation consultant. And it's easy to reach out to us. We've got forms where they can identify their challenge to help us understand where they're coming from faster. So we're trying to eliminate that friction that they would normally have with an external vendor. We already know the language. We know the hierarchy. We know the environment. We know the culture. We can get them up and running much, much faster. We, there's a consultant, particularly she's our lead consultant. She's been around for over 10 years and has a knack for connecting the dots in the organization that this particular project leader may not understand. So they may be. They're maybe, going down a journey of this, trying to solve this challenge. And she already knows that, well, six months ago, this other project team was working on a very similar challenge. Have you guys talked? It turns out they never talked. So it's like, let me get you guys. Right. So, we sort of eliminate the friction. We get them to better solutions faster, hopefully than the external vendor might.

"And it's easy to reach out to us. We've got forms where they can identify their challenge to help us understand where they're coming from faster. So we're trying to eliminate that friction that they would normally have with an external vendor."

Chris: Yeah. Yeah. So this is probably why they would choose you, he innovation services team against, other competitors, especially external competitors. But that's one thing, there is, I'm not sure if I'm allowed to say this, but I just do it anyway. There is this you never get fired for hiring McKinsey and you never get fired for hiring Accenture and, and what, what is there? Is it the same for innovation services? You never get fired if you hire Chick-fil-A innovation services, or is it different?

Michael: Oh man, that's a good question. I hope none of our clients feel at risk in that area. I think they always have the option to fire us and go outside. So I think maybe that option and the fact that it doesn't cost them anything makes that a little easier. We are much more of a partner, whereas if an external vendor comes in, you have a very thorough proposal deck. Ours is much smaller. It's very conversational. On the backend, all of the artifacts from whatever sessions we may have facilitated for you, we can provide. Partners will capture that for you, but it's, it's ultimately up to the project team on how they want to capture it. We don't come back with a big three-ring binder of everything we've heard. That's up to the project team. So it's a little, it's a little bit heavier lift for the team. But I mean, it seems to be, it seems to be worth it so far.

Chick-fil-A's Innovation Services and Tools

Chris: Yeah, and I think it's a really interesting idea and I could see the benefits and the value you can bring also from the inside. That's interesting. You can make an appointment with innovation services using the forms. Then you guys help identify the challenges. Can you talk about the services that you offer at Chick-fil-A? Is it coaching? Is it workshops? Is it tools, or methodology? What's in your toolbox?

Michael: Yeah. Four big buckets. One is consulting and facilitation. So under that consulting piece, there's coaching. And we've had potential clients, internal clients, reach out to us thinking they had an innovation problem to solve. But after a little bit of conversation, we kind of coach them out of that mindset because it's really not an innovation project and they, then recognize it's not. And then they're often running in a different direction and they don't need us. Sometimes though, it's a little bit more complex and they need to understand the audience for whom they are designing a little better and need to understand the root causes of the challenge they're facing. So we help them understand the, the, how big that work could be. A lot of times we help advise them on the length of the process. A lot of times they didn't realize it was going to be quite as long. And then the people around their table, just because you've got a project team of cross-functional people who can implement things well, doesn't mean that that project team needs to be involved in imagining, for example, or solutions, because they may not have the mindset to do creative problem solving quickly. So we kind of coach them around that stuff. And then if they decide to like, okay, thanks for the training wheels. We're going on our own. We're available to coach. They can call us anytime and say, Hey, we're running into this little issue or we had a curve ball thrown at us. What do you think about that? And coach them on that. Facilitation is also a piece of that. So many times our questions will lead to, well, can you guys do that for us? And we're like, yes, we can do that for you. So we'll design sessions around our understanding or discovery, sessions around brainstorming or imagining, and sessions around how to prototype things quickly. We have in our innovation center called Hatch, it's about 30,000 square feet. And we have an onsite group of designers and fabricators who can scale prototypes that we can help you run simulations through, whether it be with operators or with team members or with customers or all the above, uh, we could help you do that quickly. Once it gets to our, backend of innovation, really close to launch, we tend to like disengage more and more, and the activities of the mothership kind of come in and take it from there, which is great. So that's one bucket. The other bucket is learning and development. This is a big piece because we've hired so many new people. We continue to grow the organization. Business is always more and more complex. It seems like every year. So what is that innovation mindset? What are the postures? What are the methods? How does it apply in what particular functional area you might be in is important. So that's always something that we are working on. The other bucket is community and culture. And this one is a bit more broad because one of our core values is we pursue what's next. So that kind of gives us not only a license but the obligation to protect and grow, steward the spirit of innovation inside Chick-fil-A at the core, at its culture. Part of that involves, well, how am I supposed to be an innovator when I don't do innovation work? Great thought, but there are ways to do that. How can I get together with other people who are thinking the same way about innovation? We have communities for you. How can I engage regularly in sharpening my tool set with innovation? We have workshops and engagement points with you throughout the year. We have an innovation showcase where probably 8 to 10 project teams are projects that are live somewhere in the innovation process. We feature a day where anybody in the organization could go by, talk to the owners, and the project owners, get to understand what their company is doing from an innovation standpoint. We have a celebration called Drive. at the end of the year, where we celebrate innovation projects that have launched. And it's a very formal kind of, you don't have to dress formally, but the environment is very celebratory, kind of like an Academy Awards approach. And then this year, we did what we call a Pursue What's Next Summit. And we know that nobody has the margin to go out and attend innovation conferences. And so we thought, well, what if we build our one-day innovation conference and invite the kind of speakers that you would hear at an innovation conference internally and have maybe internal speakers in breakout sessions? And so we did that. And it was amazing. I didn't expect... the reaction or the attendance or the after-effect momentum. So this will be the first of more to come for sure. So that's the kind of thing that we offer.

Chris: Well, that's fantastic. Now, if you think about a typical innovation team that runs a project or executes, you kind of need a very specific skill set. I imagine for innovation services, now it's different. You talk about events. Sure, you get internal marketing and event support. I could think that the roles of your innovation services are different. What are the roles that you have in the innovation services team? Consultants for sure, is there anything else? And what kind of skills and maybe even mindsets are needed if you want to be part of the innovation services team?

Michael: Yeah, that's good. Well, you've got to have consulting and facilitation is core, right? So that's what we do. That's where we find ourselves to be most impactful. So there's a team of four, and we all have past consulting and facilitation skills. We also continue to be trained in facilitation. Last year, the whole team got trained on facilitation just to kind of sharpen our edges and make sure we're at the forefront of all the best practices on facilitating. The experience that we bring to the table is fairly diverse. We have one person who has established a really good knack and a talent and a skill for creating community. He is curious by nature. He loves exploring new opportunities to bring people together. And whether that's in person or through technology, so he's kept that piece of it alive and growing. We just brought in a new person who has a history of applying innovation, innovation mindsets, and innovation processes in the learning and development cultures or companies or even school districts. So we thought, man, this skill and asset would be perfect as we continue to grow our internal learning and development. And as I mentioned before, the other person on the team, she has been on that other side of our table running high profile, very complex innovation projects way early on, like she was one of the first to grab this innovation process and kind of push it through the mud of something new, and has done that several times. So she has, she's become a fantastic consultant because she's been there, she's done that. And she knows the heartache that it can be, she knows how hard it can be. And she knows how rewarding it can be if it's done well. And so that's an effective skill set, too.

Chris: And is there any career path to join the innovation services team? Is it just you selecting the right individuals or do they come to you? Is there, any way to be part of this?

Michael: Uh, great question. So we've, we, we are demand-based. Our growth depends on how much the organization wants our services. And right now we're pretty much matched with the demand. However, We always want to be ready in case there's a surge in demand. And if we can't take it, who might be able to take it? So we've created an innovation ambassadors program where you can either raise your hand saying, hey, I love innovation. I think I feel I have a knack for it. I want to go deeper. I want to broaden my acumen. I want to kind of do some of the things that you guys do in innovation services just for my functional area. So we've created that pool of people who are the power users who understand a little bit about consulting, they understand a little bit about facilitation, they understand a little bit about ideation and how to facilitate this kind of sessions. So they can take on some of the work if it begins to outpace our capacity of the team.

Chris: Yeah, yeah, understood. Now, It's sometimes not easy specifically for innovation teams and also for innovation teams in the short term to measure impact. Because if you're a corporate innovation team running projects, executing them, of course, you have some leading indicators, but it takes time until success materializes, growth is showing up at the top line or whatever this is. It can take time. And we've seen different organizations, some organizations are more patient and say, well, we know that maybe a project on Horizon 2 or even Horizon 3 can take years to materialize. So let's be patient and see, but still keep investing, leveraging the tools we have, increasing innovation capabilities, and so on. How is it in your case, in an internal consulting service, do you measure, for example, against, I don't know, how often you win against competition, or what kind of metrics or indicators you use to measure the effectiveness of the team?

Michael: Yeah. So that's a great question because there's only so much that we can influence. It is then up to the project leader and his or her team to make these things happen. So we're not convinced that launching an innovation is a metric. I don't know if it's a key metric for our team. We are all about service. So we feel like customer satisfaction is very important. So after every engagement, after every session, we send out a survey, a customer service survey, where they can rank us and rate us on the things that we did well, and things we didn't do well. So we're trying to achieve the top two boxes of "agree" or "strongly agree" that whatever we're asking them, what they were in favor of, as well as the verbatim sometimes point to some things, blind spots that we didn't know that we can improve on next time. We're also looking at an innovation maturity score. And we're exploring a partner who can help us potentially understand as an organization, because we will have surveyed the organization and asked them specific questions about innovation and the process and application and value right where they are. And as a, uh, as a, uh, uh, on the backend, that analysis will help us understand on the metrics or the components of the survey, what Items are we more mature in, in the perspective of the organization and which items do we have gaps in that we need to fill? And that could help point out our activity and our focus for the coming year as well. But that, but customer satisfaction, I would say is our biggest driver.

Chris: That's very interesting. So something like a services net promoter score, uh, something similar to it. Yeah, exactly right. That's very interesting. Interesting. Let's open your toolbox for just a couple of minutes. What's in the toolbox? So you already outlined the four buckets. So that's great. Is there any technology you're applying to the team's collaboration tools? Is it, I don't know, is it virtual tools? Is it merging virtual tools with the real world in workshop settings? So what's in the toolbox of the team, specifically technology that is helping others to innovate?

Michael: Yeah, that's good. We have a couple. One is more of a resource, uh, from Luma, L-U-M-A, if you're familiar with that. They provide a lot of tools for developing and thinking through designing collaboration sessions, uh, how to, uh, even, uh, conduct meetings at our understand or imagine stages, uh, and the outcome of those sessions. But as more of a collaboration tool, we use Miro as an organization. That's the platform we've been using. We have dozens of templates and frameworks that we've used. Many of those came from COVID and have been adapted over time and are still in use today. We have a bit of a challenge applying innovation or technology in, for example, AI. We are still dabbling in what that gen AI is specifically, how that might help us design sessions, create provocative thought starters, and things like that. So right now, we're just picking and choosing tiny little potential tools that we might want to use, but nothing too broad. And then again, the assessment survey, maybe something from a technology standpoint that we might use. We also are looking at, from a prototyping standpoint, right now, much of our prototyping is in foam core and plywood and those hard materials. But we've been exploring a studio that would allow more of an immersive 3D video augmented reality type of experience for the people that we want to run through simulation so that we don't have to build the inside of a restaurant necessarily, but we can have a studio that can have a projection floor walls and a ceiling that makes it feel like I'm in one without having to build one. But I think that's a few years off for us.

Chris: Yeah, it probably is. And I guess the Gen-AI discussion is front and center for most. Just last week I had an interesting conversation about the use and the value of Gen-AI in corporate innovation specifically. And she said that since Gen-AI, at least in her organization, has become a quote-unquote political imperative, It is kind of interesting to understand where it could help. So for Genii specifically, there are some use cases we see exploring. One of the interesting things we've seen lately is that you want a model that has been contextualized to the problem you wanted to hallucinate. So try to push it actually for her hallucination to get maybe to inspiration or some ideas that might turn out to be a little bit crazy still maybe technologically feasible and that inspire teams in the creative process with, hey did you think about this option or this perspective or this lens? It's a very simple one. But there is even some, some of the shortcomings, you might say, "Oh, these models that you actually can be turned out to be an advantage in certain cases". But yeah, I think everybody's looking and still searching for the top five use cases that provide to be very useful in this context for sure.

Michael: Yeah, we're there. We're one of them for sure.

The "6Ps of Essential Innovation" 

Chris: Now you also teach innovation, being an adjunct professor, I guess, at the University of Georgia, the Terry College of Business. I guess you're teaching around innovation management. And I find this interesting. Why have you learned from teaching others about innovation?

Michael: Hmm. So yeah, I did that for three years. Uh, so I'm no, I'm no longer doing it, but yeah, that, that experience was, uh, man, it was so rich for me because, I wanted it to be something that they could apply that in, in their functional role, right where they were to help illustrate to their people leaders and their executive leaders who were above them, that they, they, are now equipped to approach challenges a little bit differently than their colleagues, that it sets them apart because they know the skills, they have the ability to think through challenges differently than just the typical, hey, we see this challenge, we're gonna get this done, let's run through it no matter how difficult it is. And so that was, That was my vision for them is they left the class, not just having checked the box for the elective that they needed to have for their professional MBA, but something that they could apply. So the whole structure of my class was that they would take it was more templatized for the class's sake, but they would take it back week after week and look internally and have conversations internally on things that they were working on. We would talk about, how you create support for ideas. How do you identify the right stakeholders versus end users? How do you identify the root causes of some of the things you're working on right now? And how do you know you get to the right solution? Let's talk about that. And how do you know you're leading with an innovation mindset? So we talked about, how you don't have to have a big team to lead with an innovation mindset. So tell me all of them were leaders in some capacity. Tell me about your leadership culture. And none of them started with innovation. And so we walk through why it's important now. that the leaders of the future understand what it's like to create a culture of innovation right where they are, why that's beneficial for the team, for you as a leader, and ultimately for the business.

Chris: Yeah, so it's about the leaders of the future. It was an MBA program, right?

Michael: Professional MBA.

Chris: Yeah, professional MBA. Yeah, very interesting. So with the teaching, did you use parts of your book, "6Ps of Essential Innovation" in the teaching? Because I think it's a really nice structure. You're outlining a framework in your book to guide organizations through cultivating an innovation-friendly environment. Can you talk about those six Ps and then if you've used them during your time as a joint professor, how would you use them in this?

Michael: I did. It's not a very thin, flat book. That was one of the reasons I used it because it was easier to teach out of. But there was also, the thing about writing a book, you never know if it's going to be accepted by anybody, or anybody's going to care because they're probably going to not, or not read it. But there was something in the back of my head that I thought, man, if I could write a book that would actually work as a textbook, then that would be it for me. So that's what I did. I tried it and it worked really well. I tried to cut it down into the six P's. The first one is perception, which comes with an online survey that you could take to assess how the organization perceives innovation, and how they perceive the leader's view of innovation. The second one is people, and that's where we describe creating this culture right where they are of innovation, a strong functional area culture of innovation by leading the people through an innovation mindset and maturing as a leader. The third one is philosophy, and that is a lot about Hey, what are we doing to define clearly the language, how we define the term of innovation, and all the things that hang underneath it? What is going to be our process? What's going to be the decision-making process within each of the stages and so on? And then we get to the fourth P, which is a process. And in the book, I have the typical 4D. I've altered it a little bit to include thinking styles in each one of those steps. And then what is that mental approach that we need to have in our minds before we dive into each one of those stages? What is that approach like? And then the fifth one is place. Why is having a place? Reserved for innovation, important. And then the last P is permanence. And that's how once I stand this thing up, I don't want to. I don't want to put all this work into something like this as an organization, and then. succumb to that gravitational pull of forgetfulness and it does not continue to pay dividends because we didn't pay attention to it, continue to nurture and grow it. Well, how do I do that? How do I hold people accountable? Can we have those performance conversations every year about how your team perceived you as an innovation leader and how I was applying innovation? Those can be conversations of actually your professional performance reviews. I also included two other chapters. One is called questioning authority. And that's becoming that's on how to become an authority on asking great questions because that's where I felt like the first line breaks down. Suppose your questions are like the currency of the innovation economy. And if you don't have the ability to ask great questions, you won't be a good innovator. So I wanted to give that some attention. And then the last one was more about finding future growth. How can we look into the future through the lenses and maybe a process or mindset of innovation to find alternative growth strategies?

Chris: What is the last P about? Permanence?

Michael: Yeah, that's that part about how I sustain what I've created. One of the ways you do that is you hold people accountable as they apply innovation in the process, in their own functional area, and make that a conversation of annual performance if you want to take it that far. And I provide, what those conversations look like. What are those questions that I need to have on my annual performance review assessment? that would help me understand my team's ability or me as a leader, my ability as I continue to grow to become this leader with an innovation mindset.

Chris: Yeah. Yeah. So, make sure it's set up sustainable in a sustainable way. And with sustainable, I don't necessarily mean environmentally friendly. But of course, hat is the thing that lasts, and it's permanent. Okay.

Michael: Yeah. That seems to be the afterthought of Warren and more of the companies that I had a chance to get to know through teaching and my master's program is that was the afterthought. We set this thing up and maybe it was under an executive who was innovative. So they created this innovation, but a lot of times when that executive left, the innovation went with them and the innovation started to decline. So how do you do that? Well, one of the ways is these touchpoints or knowledge drops that I mentioned earlier, or celebrations that we do annually, all of that is part of the P in permanence.

Future Trends and Reflections

Chris: That's very interesting. Michael, if you could go back in time to when you first started leading the innovation services group, when you first started with your professorship, and when you started writing the book, what advice would you give yourself?

Michael: Oh, man. Well, I think I probably would have said two things. One is you've got to do a better job networking. I think once I began to feel the weight of all that work, I became more and more inwardly focused, just trying to manage my time. I didn't have a lot of white space. And then once I published the book and then after I began to have this realization like, "Oh my gosh, there are so many great people out in the world doing really great work". I mean, like you, I would have never had the opportunity to cross paths with you during that time. So that would be one of those pieces of advice I'd want to give myself. The other one is to be more disciplined about being curious. I think I'm a curious guy. I don't like the same thing over and over again. I want to try something new all the time. And I felt like I became entrenched in maybe my own thinking. And it wasn't until I had a little bit more free time that I could kind of get back to, hey, you've got to stay curious. And even things that don't even interest you, dive into it because the headline is somebody reading that headline which is curious, and now they're gonna have a leg up on you from their perspective. They're gonna be more rich in their experience because they decided to click on that and go read it. And I've been trying to be more disciplined about that now, but man, back when all this was starting and in the works, I let those two things go, and I think I suffered from it because I saw some really great work coming from really brilliant innovators. And I had missed out on it, so.

Chris: And how did that make you feel back then?

Michael: I felt like I wasn't bringing my best to my team or my best to my clients. So in a way, Because I closed off the spigots of knowledge and experience and new things, I also, my pool may have become a little bit more stagnant, than I was offering Chick-fil-A. And I don't want that. So how can I turn this spigot of knowledge and experiences back on so that I can share these stories and perspectives broadly?

"I think the innovators' dilemma is still valid and maybe even more prominent than in previous years."

Chris: I guess these are all signs of a great leader. So it's interesting to hear. Now, if we look forward, what do you think in the future? Because things are moving so fast, we all know this. And I think it's gotten much harder to stay on top of things. on top of the major trends, on top of the important technological advancements, for sure. But what do you think, from what you're seeing in your day-to-day job, but also in all the conversations you have now with your network, which is respectively big, has gotten big over time, for sure, but what do you think are some of the major trends or changes that you can anticipate in the field of corporate innovation, specifically? And how would you help your team prepare to meet those challenges?

Michael: Yeah, great question. This is just one guy's perspective and it is only that. I think consumerism, no matter what industry you're in, is being influenced by more and more things, whether it's potential global conflict, the impact of global decisions on my economy personally, choices that I have, the cost of those choices, civic dynamics, social dynamics, it's complex now to be a consumer. So their demands are either more sporadic in some cases or more precise than others. So being really close to our consumer, our being any corporate, is getting probably more important than ever. Well, how do I do that? It needs to be quick. It needs to be without friction. We need to prototype quickly because we understand things quickly. I think convenience, and personalization will be a trend for a long time. And in some cases, depending on what industry you're in, you can adapt quickly to those things. In other cases, it's more of a hard and rigid system, which A restaurant sort of is. A restaurant is a manufacturing and production in the back, and distribution in the front, and it happens in a microcosm very quickly, thousands of times a day. It's a machine, and anything that is the exception throws a wrench in that machine. So, and as we're seeing that trend towards more personalization, that's sort of a wrench in this machine. So how can we continue to serve the customers in ways they wanna be served, and still be a good experience for the team members and for the bottom line? I think from the flip side of that, as we want to intern, we wanna continue to optimize the core and get really good at that in a more complex world, The tension that is between that and innovating for the future is probably getting more and more intense. So looking at alternative growth strategies, because the life of my brand may not be as long as it could have been 25, or 30 years ago because of this change in consumerism. So the life maybe of my brand will change faster than I think it will. Well, then what are my alternatives? What are my alternative growth strategies? What are the options for diversification? I have to get really good at that. Well, you put those two things together and it's like oil and water. And I think that's going to be the big thing is how organizations reconcile the innovators' dilemma. Clay Christensen talked about preserving the core and innovating for the future.

Chris: Yeah. I think the innovators' dilemma is still valid and maybe even more prominent than in previous years. I'd agree. Michael, this has been a fantastic conversation. I really thank you so much for the insights before the conversation ends. Uh, we do have a new tradition on this podcast. So my previous guest leaves a question for the next guest without knowing who my next guest is and what we're going to talk about. So I've got a question here for you. Exactly. Yeah. And, the question for you goes like this. If you had the authority to stop all AI developments except for one specific application, which application would you choose to continue and why?

Michael: I'm going to answer it broadly and it's AI security. In other words, the potential exists currently in our AI world for one bad actor to, it would take a lot of work, a lot of time, but to create a, uh, a global event, tragedy, one country bombs, another all complete with synthetic media that doesn't take place in the newspaper, uh, everything surrounding media that would be just lifelike, uh, to create absolute chaos. And it would take governments some time to unravel all that. Well, what's happening to society in the meantime would be absolutely chaotic. So I think security would be the top one for me.

Chris: Like a deepfake terrorist attack, for example? Exactly. Yeah.

Michael: That is a huge theatrical output and experience. Consumers wouldn't know the difference.

Chris: They wouldn't. I agree. Given the rate, you've probably seen the latest developments on open AI on their video generation tool. And that's just the early days. So yeah, exactly.

Michael: Man. Exactly. Wow. Yeah.

Chris: No, that's it. Michael for this episode. Thank you so much again for being my guest, being on this episode. It was a pleasure to listen to you.

Michael: It was an honor for me. Thank you.

Chris: And to our listeners, if you have not subscribed to this podcast yet, please go ahead and do so. It's a small thing and it will help us continue to make the show better and better. My promise to you is that we'll continue to do our best to deliver exceptional value at no cost. So if you're not already a subscriber, please go subscribe now. Thanks for listening. Take care and bye-bye.

Check out Michael's book "6Ps of Essential Innovation" we talk about in this episode.

About the authors

Dr. Christian Mühlroth is the host of the Innovation Rockstars podcast and CEO of ITONICS. Michael McCathren is Senior Principal for Enterprise Innovation at Chick-fil-A, and former Adjunct Professor at the University of Georgia.

The Innovation Rockstars podcast is a production of ITONICS, provider of the world’s leading Operating System for Innovation. Do you also have an inspiring story to tell about innovation, foresight, strategy, or growth? Then shoot us a note!