How Can Simplicity and Innovation Co-Exist

How can you foster innovative business ideas?


Sometimes simplicity and innovation seem mutually exclusive. Cheryl Bachelder, former CEO of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, discusses how her organization established a sustainable process to ensure that innovation in the workplace consistently takes place, while also focusing on simplicity and clarity.

In this interview, Cheryl talks about how she simplified her teams’ workloads to allow them to unleash their innovation. Simplicity never stifles innovation, because defining a topic as narrowly as possible allows the team to focus on one idea and be creative with that instead of many different things at once.

Watch this video to understand how simplicity encourages true creativity.

Interviewer: Cheryl, leaders worth following value simplicity, and we find that as bringing order to chaos. How have you seen that play out in your seven years here?

Cheryl: Well, when I first arrived, one of the things I ask is I ask if everyone would send me their project lists, so I could see the work of the organization. I just wanted to do a quick survey, kind of understand where resources were being applied. I got back 128 projects. Now, at that time, we had just over 150 employees. There was almost a project per employee in the company, and I personally just don't believe a company can keep straight 128 things, even if they need to be done eventually. We can't keep track of all that today. So we all went off-site, the typical take everybody off to the hotel conference room, and we'll put all these 128 on the wall and we'll try to pick the ones that really matter, and hone in and focus on the vital few. I usually am looking for three.

The team did that work really well, and they narrowed it down to about seven mission critical things that we thought we needed to tackle. I said, "So, how does that look to you? Are those the right priorities for the company?" A woman named Sandra, who had been with the company 20 years, raised her hand and she said, "Yes ma'am, those are the right things to focus on, but we put them on the wall every year." I really was taken aback by her response, when she knew there were too many projects. She even knew which the important ones were, and she'd been to this meeting multiple times. I paused and I said, "Sandra, would you like to be on the team that fixes those seven things?" She said, "Oh yes, I would."

The organization yearns for the leader to simplify. They hide behind chaos, because it's a little bit comforting. I know I've got a job, I've got a project. I'm busy. I'm busy, busy, busy, so we made a symbol that said activity does not equal results. We put the symbol all over the building for a while, and then we said we're going to work on seven things. To be honest with you, the simplicity scared the organization. People were afraid they weren't valued, that they might not have a role in the seven things, so we created cross-functional teams for those projects that were fairly large, so that more people could feel truly connected to the core projects of the company, and over time, people relaxed a little bit and said, "Oh, we're all working on this together, and we are all going to do the vital few."

The powerful thing was we started to see incredible results within two years' time, results that the company had never experienced, and then it unlocked the capability of the team, because they saw that focus really generates superior results to that mindless activity we were doing, that never got us past go.

Interviewer: Right. Now, in your industry, this is very difficult to do, because the customer, they're fickle in the sense of there's a new product. How do you keep pace with making sure that you're not lagging behind and that you're keeping pace with what the customer is wanting, yet not having 128 new products or new services?

Cheryl: Right. Well, we actually did need 128 new product ideas. We needed an innovation process, and so we did create a strategy around innovation, and had to figure out what will be the sustainable process that we use to ensure we always have exciting new products that have been tested and proven and are now ready for prime time, because we had no pipeline of new products, and no consistency of performance. We essentially made that whole innovation thing one of our seven, and then created a robust process underneath it, to make sure we never missed that again.

Interviewer: It's counterintuitive. You could think that if you become simple, that you dumb down innovation. Actually, it's the opposite, isn't it?

Cheryl: Yes, it's the opposite, absolutely the opposite. Innovation is one of my favorite topics, because a lot of people think innovation is just a wild creativity, and I say, "No, you define the box as small as you can possibly define it, and then you tell the creative people to go crazy," and they're brilliant, because you focused them on the head of a pin idea from which they can be truly innovative. Small box, and then the second thing people forget about creativity is it's a process, and that if you don't generate . . . We generate 80 ideas every quarter, and we narrow them to four, and one gets launched. Every quarter, we do the same process.

For them to know that, every quarter, we're going to go crazy and then we're going to narrow and then we're going to test and then we're going to pick one, we've taught them that failure is completely okay. We fail 98% of the time, because we toss so much work on the way to that one tested, proven idea. But the process performs every time, not just the wild hare creative idea.

Interviewer: That's great.

Cheryl Bachelder

Cheryl A. Bachelder is the former CEO Popeyes® Louisiana Kitchen, Inc. and author of Dare to Serve: How to Drive Superior Results by Serving Others. She is known for her crisp strategic thinking, franchisee-focused approach, superior ...

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