Over the past several years, Apple’s iPhone has become the poster child for innovation. Consumers, from early adapters to dyed-in-the-wool Luddites, have found common ground in the iPhone. And why not? Its sharp design and flexibility allows users to morph it into whatever they want it to be. Its appeal spans generations. (Full disclosure: I do not own an iPhone.)

Joseph M. Carbonara, Editor in Chief
Joseph M. Carbonara, Editor in Chief

While the allure of high-tech applications can be intoxicating, business leaders should not attach undue importance to gadgets for driving innovation. “Too often we get conned into believing that innovation is like the iPhone,” says Peter Sheahan, the CEO of the Centre for Skills Development. The author of six books, including “Generation Y” and “Flip”, Sheahan made his remarks during the NAFEM Annual Meeting and Management Workshop in Sonoma, Calif. “In reality, good innovation may lie in good business practices, such as supply chain management.”

Considering innovation a form of some great new product that a company can sell lots of is short-sighted. Innovation is about fulfilling customers’ unmet business needs, and while a flashy new product sometimes is called for, innovation isn’t necessarily glamorous. “Innovation might not be developing something new but creatively and efficiently applying existing technologies, components and the like,” Sheahan said.

In his presentation at the NAFEM Annual Meeting and Management Workshop, Sheahan offered several ways foodservice companies can foster innovation, including:

  • Unleash the power of your people by freeing them to give you their ideas.
  • Be willing to change or eliminate obstacles that impede innovative thinking.
  • Look over the garden wall to get ideas from your competitors or companies outside your industry about what you can do with your current assets.
  • Change because it is right and meets the needs of the customer. Do not change just for the sake of changing.

Implementing these simple-sounding concepts may be harder than it sounds; it requires a different mindset than that of the top-down management approach. “We are so conditioned to thinking in a certain way that we don’t even realize it. Your job as a business leader is to not be slow in reacting to market change,” Sheahan says. “Just because we have been slow does not mean we have to continue to be slow.”

Too often, managers interpret their leadership role as simply imposing their views on their employees. For an innovative culture, business leaders must encourage interaction between individual employees, the organization’s customers and the industry-at-large, Sheahan says. Collaboration among business partners creates sustainable value that transcends basic day-to-day transactions.

And simply following the lead of others isn’t enough. “Crowds don’t innovate. Crowds evaluate. There are no industries that innovate. Individuals innovate,” Sheahan says. “Innovators start doing things before it is obvious” and must be willing to take risks.

Sheahan’s words ring true. Now—not tomorrow, or later—is the time to unleash your organization’s potential.