I’m an iso-convert to sourdough bread making. As I sifted flour, mixed, waited, kneaded and baked, I reflected on the similarities between my new hobby and business innovation.
1. Keep it top of mind
Even if you are not making a sourdough loaf this week, it is important to feed your starter every week with flour and water to keep it alive. A serious sourdough aficionado is not only caring for their starter, but it’s also a topic of discussion with others, sharing what works (or not) and learning about the small tweaks that could be made to improve each loaf.
Similarly, as an innovator, innovation is top of mind — reading about it, talking about it with others, and always on the search for customer problems that represent opportunities for innovation. Keeping innovation (or sourdough) top of mind is how you become a better innovator (or baker).
2. Be patient and follow the steps
Sourdough takes time. According to my recipe, 24 hours. Skip or poorly execute a step and you face potential disaster. Each step affects the outcome of your loaf. If you do not give your starter sufficient time to grow, or accidentally add water that is too hot or too cold, you may end up with a loaf like a rock.
Similar to innovation, if you skip or poorly execute a step of the innovation process, such as failing to understand your customers’ problems, your innovations may flop as products or services are launched that no-one is willing to pay for.
3. Accept that waste is part of the process
When preparing to make sourdough bread, the sourdough starter needs to be fed with water and flour. Once it’s allowed time to grow, a portion of this starter is then used to make bread, the rest discarded. Discarding the remaining portion always feels like a huge waste, however, it is a necessary part of the process.
This is like the creative process, an important part of innovation. Creativity involves coming up with new ideas. As you see how customers respond to these new ideas, some will succeed and some will fail. You cannot be creative AND only get success. Just like the waste from sourdough, creativity includes failures. It is part of the process. Know this. Embrace it.
4. Document what you do
After making a few loaves of bread, I got a little braver and started to experiment. A necessary element of experimentation is documenting what you do. For example, I made a change to the recipe and increased the time in the oven from 20 to 25 min. I wrote it down.
This sounds simple but when we try to innovate, we can get caught up in complexity. Document as much as you can so everything is clear for all involved. Who is the customer? What is the customer’s problem that you are trying to solve? What idea will you use to try to solve it? How well did this idea solve the problem? How will you tweak this idea to make it solve the customer’s problem better? Did the first tweak work? What will you do next?
Write it all down. Learn about what works and, importantly, what does not work.
5. It’s a team effort
Baking sourdough bread is a team effort. I was inspired to bake from listening to a friend discussing his baking experiences over dinner. He then gave me a recipe and some of his starter. To clarify a few steps, I watched a bunch of sourdough bakers on YouTube. Then, when it came time to bake, I was stuck because with everyone baking during COVID-19, bread tins were completely out of stock. But fortunately, my neighbour came to the rescue and I borrowed her tin. And so, the preparation of my loaf involved many people.
Similarly, we need to think about innovation as a team effort. Bringing in the right people with the right capabilities (or assets), at the right time is crucial for success. Harness the team!
6. Don’t confuse the process with the outcome
A recipe is simply a documented process to help you achieve an outcome — the bread. Documented processes are important when you are learning something new. However, the more you bake, the less you need to focus on the recipe as you become more aware of the dough itself — its weight, how it feels to touch and stretch. This is when your bread making starts to improve as it becomes less ‘left-brain, process-driven’ and more ‘right-brain, feeling-driven’.
In the same way, a process is important when we learn to innovate. As we become confident with the process, we can leave the process alone and redirect our attention to become more present in the moments we spend with customers, developing empathy, and a deep understanding of needs.
The innovation process is important, but do not confuse it with the outcome. The outcome of innovation is to deliver something different that someone perceives as valuable.