Nudity, Great Food and Disruptive Innovation

by Pete Foley

Both Playboy magazine and restaurateur Danny Meyer have been in the news this week. Playboy has made a decision to walk away from nudity in its magazine, and Mr. Meyer has decided to eliminate tipping from his 13 restaurants, including the Michelin star rated Modern in NYC.

I think these are both fascinating and bold business model innovations, and certainly come with significant risk.  Whether they are ultimately successful remains to be seen, but they are both examples of a potentially powerful innovation tool. They challenge the deeply entrenched assumptions, or givens that we all hold about our areas of expertise.

We all know that experience and expertise are invaluable for innovation. However, they can also be one of the biggest barriers to really big, disruptive change. When we are an expert in an area, our default is to look at problems through that lens. Engineers see engineering problems and solutions, designers tend to look for design solutions, and marketers for marketing ones. This is one great reason to create diverse innovation teams.  However, when we all work in the same area of business, even diverse teams often share common blind spots.

These are the hidden rules and assumptions that are so obvious that,  just as the fish doesn’t see the water, we are often blissfully unaware of.  In most everyday situations, these assumptions are extremely useful.  Executives at Boeing probably don’t want to start every meeting by challenging whether they are in the aerospace business, and you wouldn’t want your physician to routinely challenge the importance of a regular heartbeat, or to dismiss the importance of investigating a severe chest pain. Givens exist in virtually every domain where expertise exists. A chef knows that burnt food generally tastes bad, a physicist that the speed of light is an upper limit (probably), and a racing driver knows the maximum speed to take a particular curve. Knowing these the rules and limits typically helps us to make smart, fast everyday decisions, and relearning them everyday would be pointless, and in some cases dangerous.

However, once they become invisible, it is easy to hang onto them, even if the world has moved on, and they have become irrelevant. It is really hard to challenge rules that we are no longer aware of, and this can make us vulnerable to disruptive innovation sparked by outsiders, or people who follow different rules.

Playboy and The Modern are particularly fascinating because the challenge to their givens appears to have come within. Whether or not they are ultimately successful, I think this says a lot about the culture of the organization, or in the case of Playboy, perhaps the enormous challenges they were facing.

Of course, there are ways to catalyze this kind of thinking. Perhaps by bringing in new blood, via mergers and acquisitions, hiring consultants, or reaching into new areas of knowledge where different rules may exist. However, even if these approaches succeed in making hidden assumptions visible, challenging them will still typically face opposition from inside an organization. I can only imagine that the Playboy decision met with at least some initial internal resistance, and I would speculate that Modern must risk attrition with its waitstaff, who presumably benefit most from a tipping system, or perhaps from customers facing menu price increases of 25-35%.

Disrupting yourself is a very hard thing to do. It is risky, and inevitably faces inertia, or opposition.  But if the world really has changed, if you don’t disrupt yourself, eventually somebody else will.  I’ll be watching how these innovations evolve with great fascination, but I think they also raise a couple of basic questions we should all ask ourselves on a fairly regular basis:

How aware am I of the givens in my area of expertise?

When was the last time I challenged them?

Would I be willing to be as disruptive as Playboy or Danny Mayer if I really had to?

image credit: afine.de | adapted from an article originally published in LinkedIn.com


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A twenty-five year Procter & Gamble veteran, Pete has spent the last 8+ years applying insights from psychology and behavioral science to innovation, product design, and brand communication. He spent 17 years as a serial innovator, creating novel products, perfume delivery systems, cleaning technologies, devices and many other consumer-centric innovations, resulting in well over 100 granted or published patents. Follow him  @foley_pete

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