How In-N-Out Burger Became My Innovation Anchor

What started as an impassioned plea to a team amidst a sea of chaos in a busy In-N-Out burger has become a rallying cry in the innovative process.
What started as an impassioned plea to a team amidst a sea of chaos in a busy In-N-Out burger, has become a rallying cry in the innovative process.

In the Spring of 2014, I traveled to San Francisco with some friends for a conference. I was raised on the West Coast, so any trip to California results in a required pilgrimage to In-N-Out Burger. It was a busy night at the closest In-N-Out and the dining area was packed with like-minded culinary aficionados.

We waited eagerly for our orders at the counter when you could feel the energy change. There were very loud “conversations” happening on the staff side of the counter. I couldn’t make out words but it was definitely heated from the chaos of the dinner rush. And that’s when our hero stepped in. He came from a spot in the back where he had been working the large, manual french fry cutter. He raised his eyes from the floor with the same erie calm that rolls over a seaside town before a hurricane strikes. Then we heard him proclaim, in all of our sight, a statement that’d change our mindset that night.

“We’re all… on the same… level.”

It is devious in its simplicity. This was not a time for hierarchical org charts or chains of command. Every employee there was tasked to get orders in, and then out. In and out. It was not about pulling rank or telling others how to do their job better. Get the orders in, and then get them out.

That simple statement has anchored the better part of a year and a half of innovation theory development. It has become a mantra, a safe harbor, and a compass. Here are the two best applications of “We’re all on the same level.”

1. Your team is all on the same level.

Hopefully you’ve had the opportunity to read my post on T-Shaped teammates and flat teams. If you haven’t it is located here.

Having a flat team has many benefits, specifically in the deployment of candor. Without a designated manager or leader, each person feels comfortable offering up bad ideas as well as critical feedback on other prototypes. Open dialogue helps the team move faster towards promising solutions.

A wise person once said “A good idea doesn’t know its parent.” An individual on flat team doesn’t seek credit and instead uses any success to reflect back on the team’s efforts. Another benefit is that when tasks or events arise, everyone is willing to pitch in. There may be tasks above or below the team’s station and if they are an honest-to-goodness flat team, then there will be shared coverage of those tasks.

The team functions for collective goals when they’re all on the same level.

2. The problems you try to solve are all on the same level.

There are two main schools of thought around innovation. You either start with a solution or you start with a problem. The majority of what I do starts with a problem. It requires me to research the problem and empathize with the customer, because sometimes the problem you see is not the real problem. There are problems that seem cut and dry. Slap on a salve of solution and you are good to go. Then there are problems that look dark and wrapped in a bramble of thorns. But here’s the rub. If you have an effective process for tackling problems, then all your problems are on the same level.

The simple problem does not get a watered-down, vanilla version of your process. If your process works, apply it to the small problems.

The tricky or large problem does not get additional steps or tools applied to your existing process. If your process works, apply it to the large problems.

It minimizes to this: If you are trying to solve a problem, apply your effective process in its best and truest form.

Keeping things all the same level reduces politics and favoritism, and helps promote candor and openness. And to borrow one of Walt Disney’s famous quotes… “It all started with a burger.”

Challenge

  • Are there things that you put at different levels?
  • Would rearranging them all on the same level affect your innovative process?
  • When faced with a new problem, ask yourself “How would In-N-Out solve this?”
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