Dan Coudreaunt, executive chef and director of culinary innovation at McDonald’s, and Wylie Dufresne, chef-owner of molecular-gastronomy temple WD-50, know a thing or two about innovation. At a packed NRA session they set about dispelling a few myths.
The role of innovation myths: Innovation is a “nice to have.” Innovation is just creativity for its own sake.
“If you’re in an extremely competitive place, you can’t live without innovation,” said Coudreaunt. “If [McDonald’s] doesn’t continue to innovate with the guests we’ll be left behind.”
He said he used to get a charge out of making crazy stuff with lots of ingredients, but has found that simplicity can often be even better, and just as innovative. “I don’t like to do something that’s just going to stay in the test kitchen.”
Dufresne’s restaurant was hammered in the beginning as being too showy. He used to bristle at the criticism, but now realizes some of it was accurate. “Some of the things we did weren’t the best decisions, but it was part of the process… We’ve gotten better at incorporating innovation into the restaurant in a more mature way, and often simpler. We’re not as showy about it.”
The myths of the innovator: To be an innovator one must be naturally creative. Innovation is work that you do alone.
“Innovation is a muscle a lot of people have that can be strengthened,” said Coudreaunt. “But I believe certain people are wired a certain way. Some people go from A to B to C. My mind, I go from A to diamond to blue to pink. I used to think it was a problem. But it keeps me asking why, why not.”
“I don’t believe that any creative endeavor has ever been the work of one person,” added Dufresne.
The environment myth: Innovation requires vast amount of resources and can’t happen with dissenters involved.
Resources aren’t necessary to get the innovative process started, said Coudreaunt, because that starts in your brain. To take it to the next level? That’s when McDonald’s resources are nice to have around. “It gives me a lot of freedom, [because] the sky’s the limit if it’s truly the right idea [I’m pursuing]. This company is going to go full bore after it.”
For Dufresne, a lot of innovation, in the beginning anyway, came from the fact that his restaurant didn’t have a lot of resources. “There were lots of pieces of equipment on our wish list, so we had to find other ways of doing things.”
Both guys agreed that creating an environment where people are uninhibited is key to innovation. Uninhibited to share ideas—or criticism.
The process myth: Innovative ideas come out of nowhere.
Dufresne said inspiration doesn’t come out of nowhere. He searches it out.
“I read labels constantly,” he said. “I try to understand how that [product] could be made. What could I learn from it. I’m fascinated by McDonald’s”
He said he carries a notepad with him so he’s ready whenever an idea hits him. “The way the light hits a building might give you an idea about how you want to put food on the plate.”
Coudreaunt said in his test kitchen the chefs are always trying to one-up each other, bringing in ideas or techniques they’ve seen elsewhere.
The results myths: Innovation isn’t innovation unless it’s complex and sexy.
“I don’t think innovative thinking has to be sexy,” said Coudreaunt. “An example: French fries are not innovative. Every restaurant has them. What’s innovative about how McDonald’s handles them is the process. How we set up the infrastructure, training. That’s not very sexy.”
The impact myth: Innovation has to be game changing.
“Innovation doesn’t have to be broad scale,” said Coudreaunt. “You can be innovative in your home kitchen. Innovative in how you get your message to your child. You just have to exercise that creative muscle.”