Innovation and Simplicity

by Scott Bowden

Innovation and SimplicityIn today’s world of complex systems, Big Data, and massive analytical capabilities, sometimes we need to step back and remember that transformative innovation can, and often does, arise from simple human ingenuity.  Two historical examples from the food industry, one relatively recent and one from the 18th century, demonstrate how science and analytics are not necessarily the only path to innovation.

The first example is food preservation.  As recounted in Tom Standage’s An Edible History of Humanity, in 1795 the French government initiated a contest calling for a new method of preserving food to support prolonged military campaigns.  Previously, soldiers and sailors had suffered from poor nutrition on long voyages, were required to manage huge supply chains (e.g., thousands of carts and mules), or had to forage for food across the territory in which they were traveling, which could be challenging depending on the geography (e.g., desert) or the season (e.g., winter).  The French food preservation prize called for innovation in terms of creating a product that was good-tasting, nutritious, cheap to create, and easy to transport.  Militaries had relied on salted, dehydrated, and smoked foodstuffs in the past, though these altered the taste and nutritional qualities of the food involved.  Scientists such as Robert Boyle (the Irish “Father of Chemistry) and Denis Papin (a French physicist), had been working on the challenge of food preservation for decades with limited success, though none of their creations met the criteria for the French prize.

The person who solved the puzzle of food preservation and won the 12,000 franc prize in 1809 was not a scientist.  Rather, it was a chef named Nicolas Appert, who was experienced in the use of sugar to preserve fruit as part of his work in Paris.  Appert experimented with preserving food in champagne bottles and, through an extensive process of trial and error, determined how applying heat in various amounts to foodstuffs resulted in properly preserved foods that maintained their taste and nutritive content.  Appert had no idea why applying heat to his concoctions improved their preservation, and indeed this would not be fully understood for another 60 years until Louis Pasteur identified the microbes killed by the heating process.  Although Appert focused on the use of bottles to preserve his food, a British engineer named Bryan Donkin followed Appert’s process but put the finished products in tin-coated iron cans, leading to the ubiquitous product that we see today.

The second example is Murray Lender of Lender’s Bagels, as told in a recent Wall Street Journal obituary.  Lender died on March 21, 2012 after fundamentally transforming the way Americans, and many others around the world, consume breakfast.  The Lender family began making and selling bagels in the 1920s in New Haven, CT.  Customers typically purchased and consumed bagels on weekends, resulting in intense workloads for the Lender family on Saturday and Sunday mornings.  Lender’s first innovation was a simple attempt to better manage this work by freezing bagels on the weekend then defrosting and delivering them to customers in subsequent days.  This was a gamble, and for a time Lender was worried about customer reaction, but the overall response was positive and resulted in a whole new bagel product offering.  Lender’s simple work-saving innovation spawned a whole new industry that continues to function today.  Additional innovations from Lender came from similarly simple notions, such as the pre-sliced bagel (customers were complaining about cutting their fingers while slicing their partially-defrosted bagels) and new flavors that were more traditionally tied to breakfast tastes, such as cinnamon and raisin.

As modern practitioners of innovation, particularly in highly-complex world of Information Technology, we sometimes forget that even the simplest solutions can be the most innovative.  In the case of Nicolas Appert, we see that it was a chef, not a scientist, who solved a problem that had perplexed people for generations.  Appert applied scientific-like methods of trial and error to solve the problem of food preservation, but he was not a member of the scientific community, though his innovation was by no means less transformative than those ideas that emanated from the great scientific minds of his era.  Similarly, Murray Lender’s development of an entirely new product line (frozen bagels) evolved from a simple desire on the part of his family to reduce their weekend workload.  When we think about innovation, we should remember to focus not only on complexity but also think about simple solutions to complex problems.

Sources:

Stephen Miller, “He Turned Bagels into National Nosh,” Wall Street Journal (March 23, 2012), page A5.

Maria Balinska, The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).

Tom Standage, An Edible History of Humanity (NY: Walker and Company, 2010).

image credit: wikipedia.org

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Scott BowdenScott Bowden works on Innovation Programs for IBM Global Services.

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