Being Awesome, Innovation, Innovation Mindsets, Like a Startup, Motivation, Team

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.”


  • 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?”
Being Awesome, Innovation, Team

How many C’s are there in “Innovation”?

Being part of a good innovative team is a dream. It is mutually rewarding, there are no stepped on toes or bruised egos, and everyone helps elevate each other’s ideas and projects to that “OMG wait until the world sees what were doing!” level. However, not all teams are created the same, and some are clearly created just to put sand in your sunscreen. I’ve identified four attributes that can help your innovation team reach new heights and upgrade into a traction-churning prototype machine!


Making change sounds intuitive when working in innovation, but “change” is not just a product your team produces. Your team must embody change in order to stay relevant, effective, and productive. An innovative team that is set in their ways is like a brand new car in neutral; flashy and shiny now but ultimately going nowhere.

Change exists in your team procedures. There is no set template for innovation and what works today may not work tomorrow. Since variables and climates shift constantly, each problem you set out to solve needs to be evaluated for appropriate procedures for you and your team. Surveys and A/B testing of prototypes may have helped you understand your wireframes, but will those procedures help you learn about functionality?

Change exists in your team skills. Previously, we’ve talked about being T-shaped. If you are T-shaped, then your horizontal skills are where the change is going to be most noticeable. Those are the skills that possibly overlap with teammates, but are needed to fill in production gaps. Similarly, based on your proposed solutions that you need to prototype, you and your team may need to stretch beyond your skill sets into unknown territory. Sure, there are vendors out there that are experts in what you need to accomplish but they cost money. If you’re in the prototyping stage, you will need to weigh whether you can learn enough to create a testable prototype or if you need to spend the money. Either way, you should start learning about what you need, even if you chose to outsource work with a vendor. It makes communication easier if you have a basic understanding.


This can often be the hardest one for a team to develop because we want to encourage everyone. Yet not every idea, prototype, or hypothesis is a world-changing gem. Sometimes they’re just bland blobs of meh. That’s ok. You can still praise effort without agreeing with an idea. Try to level up the mediocre hypotheses and raise up your teammates. However, and I can not stress this enough, DO NOT LET THEM MOVE FORWARD WITH A STANDARD IDEA. You are doing them a disservice by not forcing them to make the idea better. You are passively undermining your whole innovation team. Likewise, you should prepare yourself for the time when your team will say your idea is “average” or worse. Candor is a two-way street. I am lucky that my team has saved me from shipping mediocre ideas. The best way you can show true respect for each other, is to demand each other’s best effort everyday.

“Life is way too short to make mediocre stuff. And almost everything that is “standard” now is viewed as mediocre.” – Seth Godin, Tribes


Innovation is lantern and unfiltered it can burn as bright as the sun. Nothing diminishes that light more than personal plans to receive recognition. In an innovative team, a team full of T-shaped dynamos, there is no room for ego and personal glory. When someone wins, it is because of the team. Just like a apple tree can not point to one rain storm as the reason it grew, your ideas are the product of the fertile soil in your brain and the collective brainstorms of your team in the past, event he unrelated ones. It is a bit cliche to say “There is no I in team” and it is quite futile because there are plenty of joke responses that defuse the power of the statement. However a team that is concerned about getting credit for individual contributions, wont contribute to the global good.

One great way to defuse this is to constantly recognize others for their contributions to your individual and team’s work. If people are constantly feeling appreciated for their efforts, then they won’t feel the need to find more recognition. It’s one of those “Do unto others” things. Plus, it’s just plain nice to do! Especially since you are working on an innovative team. Some projects you will lead and pilot. Others will find you following and pushing the project to gain momentum. And yet other projects will find you on the sidelines, cheering and consulting when you can. Team first, in every role.


The Chupacabra of Innovation!
The Chupacabra of Innovation!

You need to allow the odd, the unique, the unbelievable, and the silly to integrate with your team. Hopefully your team of innovators is a group of positive deviants; bristling with energy to make a good change in the world. Chances are that the team has some ideas that are “out there”. They must be allowed to exist. Maybe an idea can be so wild that you won’t do it, but talking about it can spur the conversation down avenues you would have never considered before. One of our favorite brainstorming questions is “What would our industry NEVER do?”. We dance on the undiscovered edges of the maps, the parts where the dragons are supposed to live. We need to be the explorers of the fringe, the cultivators of the odd thoughts. That’s how we disrupt the market’s standard flow.


  • When was the last time someone on your team said “This is how we always do it”?
  • What’s the most minimal way you can start to incorporate kaizen into your procedures?
  • A great way to start getting candor flowing is to be the first target. Put an idea out there and push your team to tear it apart. Have them find ways that it will fail. 
  • How can you incorporate a team-only view of recognition?
  • At your next brainstorming, challenge the team to come up with the worst ideas or the silliest ideas.