Inspiration: Jamie Oliver’s Battle for Cultural Innovation

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June 17, 2011
Thoughts by
Tyler Hagler

Incremental innovation to produce breakthrough results

I recently found myself hooked on Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, now in its second season on ABC. The noted British chef is renewing his crusade, initiated last season in a town of 50,000 people in Huntington, West Virginia, to challenge our notions about the food we Americans eat and, more importantly, how we feed our children. This season, Jamie is getting much more audacious and taking his road show to a city of 11 million, Los Angeles – where fast food was invented. Jamie is getting radical in his attempt to change the culture of poor eating habits by working with individual families, an independent fast food restaurant called Patra’s Charbroiled Burgers, and is taking on the LA school district to improve the quality of school lunches.

What makes Oliver so compelling as a change agent is his willingness to take the powerful cultural resistance he is getting and persevere to work his message into the consciousness of the community. What makes his story so interesting is that he fails repeatedly to gain traction. A large dramatic demonstration of the volume of sugar consumed by LA school children in 1 week is viewed by a crowd of 25 parents. The school administrators doggedly persist in locking Oliver out of their cafeterias despite the wishes of one school’s principal and parents. Most notable, is Oliver’s relationship with Deano – the second generation owner of Patra’s, who is willing to hear Jamie Oliver out, but at first blush, refuses to make changes to the more expensive, but healthier ingredients based on a pragmatic understanding that he can’t alienate his customers at the risk of going out of business.     

Jamie’s approach with Deano follows incremental innovation to produce breakthrough results. There’s a really neat parallel here with consumer product development: Deano’s business model is highly risk averse with painful volume sensitivities. He can’t afford to make disruptive changes that would result in a temporary drop in sales. Instead, Jamie focuses on making a few small tweaks by researching cost-effective, healthy cuts of beef to change the menu from unhealthy to healthy. I can’t help but relate this to the realities of bringing innovation to high volume consumer products. Incumbents find it very difficult to make changes at the risk of drops in volume. The culture becomes focused on exploiting the original investment in innovation through cost-reduction and supply chain efficiencies. Similar to Deano, a second-generation owner, he lost sight of the original mind-set that introduced fast-food to the world.  The resulting pragmatic solution is one that preserves the core customer base by continuing to offer what sells today, and expanding the menu to offer healthier alternatives. Similarly, high volume consumer products companies can have a long-term disruptive innovation plan, but have to stage their progress in delivering that vision through a series of incremental changes that delight the customer without shocking them.

Tyler Hagler

As a career industrial designer and innovation practitioner, Ty Hagler has managed hundreds of new product development programs through the process of opportunity identification guided to commercialization.


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