On this week’s episode of Inside Outside Innovation, we sit down with Vaughn Tan. Vaughn is the author of the new book, The Uncertainty Mindset: Innovation insights from the frontiers of food. He and I talk about his well-researched account of how some of the world’s top chefs and their teams approach culinary innovation and what it means for innovation teams of all kinds.
Inside Outside Innovation is the podcast that brings you the best and the brightest in the world of startups and innovation. I’m your host, Brian Ardinger founder of insideoutside.io, a provider of research, events, and consulting services that help innovators and entrepreneurs build better products, launch new ideas, and compete in a world of change and disruption. Each week we’ll give you a front row seat to the latest thinking, tools, tactics, and trends in collaborative innovation.
Interview Transcript with Vaughn Tan
Brian Ardinger: Welcome to another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. I’m your host, Brian Ardinger. And as always, we have another amazing guest today. We are talking to Vaughn Tan. Vaughn Tan is an assistant professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at University College London, School of Management, previously worked at Google in California has a Harvard PhD and he’s author of a new book called The Uncertainty Mindset: Innovation insights from the frontiers of food. Welcome to the show, Vaughn Tan.
Vaughn Tan: Fantastic. Thanks for having me.
Brian Ardinger: I’m excited to talk about this topic of innovation in the culinary space. Restaurants have been around forever. And when you think of innovation, you don’t always think restaurants and culinary space. And so I wanted to dig into this particular topic. Maybe you could tell the audience a little bit about your eclectic background.
Vaughn Tan: Absolutely. I’m from Singapore originally. And so I guess it’s kind of like a trope that if you’re a Singaporean, you have an unhealthy interest in food. This is more or less true. That kind of only started to show up in my research a little bit later. I think where I got interested in the questions I’m asking in the book, it actually started when I was working at Google.
When I was there, one of the most interesting things that I noticed, I was there for about three years, was that the really interesting groups that came up with really innovative ideas we’re the ones that weren’t sort of organized the way management, conventional wisdom, would say you should organize the innovation group. They were the ones that bubbled up from the ground up. People found each other. The goals were kind of like amorphis and shifting a lot. The themes that eventually showed up in the book.
I first noticed in an inchoate way, when I was working at Google. When I went back to get my PhD, I was interested in finding out more about how organizations could do something like what I saw at Google. Create this environment in which people and teams could self create projects that resulted in innovation. And when I was doing the research, everyone who tries to do like a research project for a PhD, you have to chose your setting. You have to choose the site that you will go look at trying to understand more about the phenomenon that you’re interested in. A lot of people who study innovation, will study things like a microchip foundary or something like that.
I just sort of, I thought initially, maybe I should try something, which is a little bit weird. What I always tell people is there’s tons of reasons why restaurants and food R & D are good place to study innovation. The biggest one is that if you study food R & D the cycle time for innovation is very short.
So as a researcher, what you see is you see many, many cycles that you can start to see patterns across all those cycles. But actually the true reason, which is not less good, it’s just also a good reason for it is that it’s just much more fun. You know, studying chefs, being in restaurants, being in a kitchen where they’re coming up with new ideas and food and constantly failing is just more fun than watching people code all the time and looked at both. So I can say that.
And it’s not to say that programming or hardware design is less interesting. It’s just less fun to me. That’s why I did it. My personal background is connected to why I decided to do this. Because I think it’s an inherently interested in food and interested in how it gets made. I would not have thought about doing it in this way. But a lot of the reasons why I’m looking at food are actually the same reasons that initially drove me to do a PhD in the first place. And they were the same things I saw when I was working at Google.
Brian Ardinger: Let’s talk about some of the examples and how you went about learning some of this stuff. So you’ve worked with some of the world’s top chefs and their teams and looked at how they approached innovation. Did they look at it as innovation, the stuff that they were doing, or tell us a little bit about that.
Vaughn Tan: I think they absolutely thought of it as innovation, or at least they thought about it as trying to come up with new things. And I think most of them, even though they would not maybe have used the same words as I’m using, they would have thought of it as trying to come up with a new approach, either at the level of the dish, trying to come up with the new dish or in some cases in new idea of what service should be like the entire experience of going into a restaurant.
Some of these teams were interested in new ways of cooking. Some of them were interested in developing new materials in the sense of new ingredients. They were always thinking about it as innovation and thinking about innovation as something that could happen at several different levels that can be combined of course, but they were always thinking of what they were working on as trying to come up with new things.
Brian Ardinger: Let’s talk about the book itself. The Uncertainty Mindset. How does that come into play this idea of uncertainty in the innovation process and what did you learn?
Vaughn Tan: I think the big takeaway point that I want everyone to come away from the book with is that innovation is often thought of as something which companies must do in order to survive and thrive and all that other stuff. Everybody knows it. But the thing which is also true about innovation, which people sort of conveniently forget all the time, is that if you are truly going to make something which is brand new, you have no idea what that is at the beginning. Not a precise idea anyway. And you also don’t have a clear idea of how you’re going to get there.
Innovation as a process and as an outcome is probably the only kind of activity that we do in a corporate context that is unavoidably and inevitably inherently and uncertain activity. That’s sort of the big framing for the book, which is if you’re trying to do something inherently uncertain, the way you think about how you do things, what the constraints on your actions are, what the resources are that are available to you. Even what you’re trying to do in the first place, like at a very fundamental level. All those things have to be appropriate for something which is uncertain and that’s where the uncertainty mindset comes in.
So the uncertainty mindset is basically a way of thinking about the world and the future that does not assume that you know what it will be in the future. In fact, you sort of assume that you have no idea what’s going to happen. And that assumption changes many of the things that you do in terms of hiring. In terms of how you set goals. And also in terms of how you motivate your team.
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Brian Ardinger: That really brings up an interesting point about where we are right now. So we’re in the midst of the coronavirus. The restaurant industry has been devastated and now we’re seeing some new things popping up and new ways of thinking around that space. What have you learned or what are some of the trends that you’re seeing of how companies and people are adapting to that? Especially in the culinary space.
Vaughn Tan: There seemed to be a few clusters of response. There is one question or response to that basically is we’re going to stop doing things until things go back to normal. And obviously, if you have deep pockets, like if you’re funded by private equity or something, you can afford to do this.
And other cluster of responses is we’re going to basically do what everyone else is doing, like pivot to delivery and not really think about whether or not that pivot, that alternative business model, really makes sense for what as an entrepreneur, as a business owner, I want out of my business, and also whether it was appropriate for the context, right like the customers that the business has. The kind of food that the business is trying to produce. That’s a second cluster.
And then the third cluster, which I think is the most adaptive and healthy one is where the business owner really uses this, not just as an opportunity, but as a requirement. So really look very closely at the business model that the business runs on and try and rethink how that’s changed by very different resources and constraints that Coronavirus puts on a business. I can give you an example of that. And I think this example is about a restaurant, but I think it illustrates more generally how businesses outside of the restaurant industry can think about this.
You know, if you’re a restaurant and you happen to be located in a part of town, that is very much an office tourist part of it. In any major city like New York or London or Paris, there’s going to be parts of the city that are largely residential and then they’re going to be parts of the cities that are mostly commercial. You know, like it’s like the center of town where lots of tourists come. The stores, attractions. There’s lots of offices.
If you’re in that part of town and you’re a restaurant and you immediately think I’m going to pivot to delivery. And my delivery radius is only my one mile neighborhood where nobody lives and no tourists will be for the next very, very many number of months. Essentially, what you’ve done is you’ve pivoted to a business model that does not recognize and incorporate the realities of the situation that you’re currently facing.
The alternative is if you look at the constraints and the resources that you face, because you are in this part of town where no one really lives and tourist don’t really come, what you may end up doing is you may end up for instance, shutting down your physical location in the center of town and hiring a dark kitchen that is closer to where your customers live. And then changing the menu that you provide through this dark kitchen to a menu that is amenable to being delivered. What that alternative represents is really looking very closely at what constraints you face. In this case, you don’t have people who live close to you who are also your customers. And what resources you have in this case it might be the availability of dark kitchen resources in residential parts, of for instance, London.
And really rethinking how your business model can adapt given these resources and constraints. So that the business model is actually more likely to be viable and the people who are doing this third thing, which is to really re-examine what their business is trying to do in the light of existing resources, existing constraints, to give themselves more flexibility. Those are the ones that in my opinion, seem to be doing better and are much more likely to do better, even as the uncertainty continues. So in the US in the UK, especially. I think the uncertainty around what will happen to all businesses, but especially restaurants generally is huge and it will continue to be big. In fact, in the US unfortunately, it’s going to be massive for months, and it’s not clear of when, unfortunately that will go away.
Brian Ardinger: We have a local restaurant group here, pivoting through a variety of innovative things. You were mentioning the dark kitchen and that they consolidated the different types of restaurants that they had. And then they’ve moved to subscription based model, basically for their food delivery. Every week, they have three different meals that they can deliver to you on Monday for a family. Again, not the typical stuff that they would have on their normal menu, but ties it together and provides a different way to provide food. Probably not what they were originally thinking, but it seemed to at least keep them up and going and who knows where it will go in the future, but definitely I’m seeing some local examples of that as well.
Vaughn Tan: The key thing is in a situation of great uncertainty, what you need is you need to be really flexible, but also realistic. These ideas of just continuing to do the same thing that you did before coronavirus and hoping that that will work. If you’re really lucky, I guess that could be viable. But most of the time, the businesses that will succeed and thrive are the ones that are willing to change what they do in a way that is creative, but also realistic. This idea of a pragmatic imagination or a realistic imagination. I think that’s really, really crucial, especially right now.
Brian Ardinger: So you’ve talked about some of the key characteristics of a great innovation team in that, but what are some of the other things that you’ve learned from your research? Fast, moving, adaptable, curious, what are some of the things that make up a team that can actually do this kind of stuff.
Vaughn Tan: Again excellent question. I think there’s probably two main things which I would highlight. The first one is framing every person’s role, their job role, not as being something that is static and stable, which is what generally written job descriptions tend to imply. But instead something which is changing and changeable over time. And the reason why this is important. I think not just for innovation teams, but also for teams that are facing uncertain situations like startup teams or small business teams that are facing uncertain times, like right now. Is because no matter whether you’re an innovation team or just a business working in a very uncertain environment, the demands on the team are changing all the time.
You can’t say this is the pattern of constraints and resources that you face for good. It’s that tomorrow, you may not be able to dine in anymore and for an unpredictable time. Or the next week, two of your staff may get coronavirus and get symptoms of coronavirus and have to go on a 14 days, self isolation period, leaving you with fewer people on staff. Basically, the idea is if, as the manager or the leader of this team, you set the expectation among all your employees. That what they do, will always be the same. You’re basically shooting yourself.
If instead, what you do is you say, this is what we think you’ll have, but be ready for it to change over time. And not necessarily only in a bad way, right? Because what this does is it gives you freedom at the employee to say, you know, I really want to do this thing, which I’m interested in, and I think I’m good at, and this expectation of change and gives the employee the opportunity also to try and learn how to do new things that wouldn’t otherwise be possible in a very stable job. So that’s one thing.
The other thing I would say is there is a kind of an idea in management that you should try and like peg the project to the capabilities of the team that is doing it. Right. So you don’t want to like stress them out and overexert them. I think actually in innovation teams and especially in teams that, you know, will have to deal with uncertainty a lot. What you actually want to do is you want to progressively overload these teams. You want to make them uncomfortable a little bit and progressively make them more and more uncomfortable because they’re gradually building the capacity to do things that they weren’t able to do before.
I think that this is something which sounds very counterintuitive because it goes against almost every principle of management that you see. It’s a bit like weight training or business training in general, if you make people uncomfortable by making them do something that they don’t know how to do, but if they try it, could learn how to do. You’re not only giving them the ability to do this new thing when they learn how to do it, you’re in a sort of a meta sense. You are giving them the experience of being comfortable with being uncomfortable, where the discomfort comes from not knowing how to do something, or not knowing where the future will go.
And that actually, that meta ability is incredibly important because most of us don’t have it anymore. It’s been kind of like squeezed out of us by school and society. And if, as a leader or a manager, you are training your team and individual employees on your team to do this. You’re not only building a stronger team, that’s more adaptable. You’re also building stronger and more adaptable people.
Brian Ardinger: It makes sense for a lot of ways. The ability to ask questions, the ability to sit with failure or mistakes and be able to figure out what’s the next step along the process, things like that. Can you talk about some of the examples or things that you learned or in your book that would be interesting and insightful for the audience?
Vaughn Tan: I mean, what I call like productive discomfort or desperation by design. One organization that I know quite well is called The Mad Symposium. It’s well known inside the cutting edge cuisine world. They used to organize a symposium that was about every year and it would bring together all these really diverse people like chefs, scientists, policymakers, people in the sort of cutting edge food scene. And the interesting thing about that symposium is that it was originally developed by the team that ran a restaurant called Noma.
And so the year that they decided to come up with this symposium, which turned into one of the thought leadership events for the cutting edge culinary space. The year, they decided to do that. I think it was 2011. They actually had never even run any kind of conference, let alone a chef conference or a chef conference that was unique in this way. Most conferences don’t have all these very diverse people attached to them. They just have chefs doing demonstrations.
This was meant to be a conference of ideas for the culinary industry, especially at the cutting edge. And so what this did, the decision to sell tickets for a conference that was happening in a few months, that they had never run before. What it did was it was an instance of desperation by design, right? Like the moment you announced to the world that you’re going to do this and you start to sell tickets, you’ve got to do it.
So the team that was at the restaurant was like, they were obviously really stressed out. I was with them for part of this time and then I came back to help out for the actual first symposium. They were incredibly stressed out. They were not happy campers in a sense, but you know, there is a sense of exhilaration that comes from being forced to do something that you want to do, but what you would otherwise not have done, if you were not forced to do.
And some of the people on there, you know, they were chefs would learn how to become like audio producers. They were like, culinary researchers who eventually ended up becoming people who are very good at programming, a super weird set of skills that they would never have thought to acquire were on their own that they were then forced to acquire. And what that meant was they were subsequently able to do more interesting, weird conferences with every passing year.
And in fact, this capacity do things that apparently are impossible to do unless you learn how to do them. Also allowed them to go to a different country, completely jettison their existence menu, learn the cuisine and the ingredients of all new culinary culture within the space of six months, and create a new restaurant there that has the same kind of philosophical and aesthetic approach as Noma, but is actually using the food of a different country.
So all of these things, which would be very, very difficult to do. I think in my interpretation anyway, I think that they develop the ability to do that because they were able to sit with the discomfort of not knowing how to do something and not simply be paralyzed by it. But instead to say, okay, I don’t know how to do this. It’s slightly terrifying, but I’m going to go out and figure it out.
And it’s that meta ability, which is actually the real value of this approach. I think of it as desperation by design, right? Like you teach people how to be uncomfortable, but still to act. And it’s the ability to be uncomfortable with not knowing how to do something and acting to figure it out that longterm creates the ability to keep learning, how to do new things that have never been done before.
Brian Ardinger: That’s quite interesting. When you think about master chefs and that you think about creative genius in the kitchen who comes up with something new and drives it, and that. Is it all about that mad scientist creative leader that creates these teams? Or is it a combination of the teams learning this or is it an individual or a team, or how does that play out in real life?
Vaughn Tan: Another great question, which I’m really glad you asked, because I think very few people will ask that question. For me, I think obviously the singular creative individuals are very important in doing new things anyway, but I feel like people cover that all the time. So I tend to not focus on that. I tend to focus on the team dynamics that allow the team to do interesting creative things.
And so your question, is it about the individual or the team? Obviously it’s about both. The role of the creative genius has been vastly overstated. It’s a very easy story to tell, like focus on some really charismatic, persistent, interesting person and tell their story. That’s easy. It’s much harder to talk about the team dynamic that allow a team to collectively figure out how to do something that hasn’t been done before. And then actually do it.
What’s been really interesting from my perspective is understanding how very, very protidian undemonstrative practices and philospies that you put in place, can result in innovative teams. None of these teams had like a five point innovation plan. In fact, everything that I described in the book they simply did, because this is just how things were done. Which suggests to me that if you are not just in the restaurant business, but if you’re trying to create an innovation team, generally, of course you should try and find the most creative people to join it.
But the other thing that you should, I would say must do. Is also put in place these very boring protidian sounding properties around hiring, around motivation, that leads the team almost automatically become more able to be creative. If you were to ask me like how I feel about that in relation to the creative genius view of innovation, I would say that it’s a necessary counterweight to that. It’s not one or the other it’s both. And it just happens to be that for whatever reason, people have always talked about the creative genius and they’ve really done comparatively little about the mechanics of team. Even when the team is surrounding a creative person. So to me, this is like redressing the balance.
Brian Ardinger: It’s almost about, talking about the different types of constraints that you put into different types of environments and those constraints in and of themselves helps bring out that creativity and ability to overcome them.
Vaughn Tan: Absolutely. Exactly to your point. If you think about a team as existing in a network of like constraints and resources, the way you design, those can be very much a strategic thing, right? Like if you want to design a team that is going to be likely to be creative in the future, you set up how they work so that they’re more likely to be like that. You don’t give them stable roles and don’t give them very clear cut goals and you don’t motivate them the way you would have to motivate a team that was trying to go after a very clearly understood outcome. You have to do things different.
Brian Ardinger: Awesome. I thank you for coming on Inside Outside Innovation, to tell us a little bit more about this. I encourage anybody to pick up the book, the Uncertainty Mindset: Innovation insights from the frontiers of food. If people want to find out more about yourself or about the book, what’s the best way to do that.
Vaughn Tan: The book has its own website, uncertaintymindset.org, and then if they want to find out more about me and the other things I’m working on they can go to my website, which is vaughntan.Org. My Vaughn only has one A in it.
Brian Ardinger: Vaughn Tan, I appreciate you coming onto the show. Thanks very much for being a part of Inside Outside Innovation. I look forward to continuing the conversation.
Vaughn Tan: Absolutely. Thanks for having me.
Brian Ardinger: That’s it for another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. If you want to learn more about our team, our content, our services, check out InsideOutside.io or follow us on Twitter @theIOpodcast or @Ardinger. Until next time, go out and innovate.
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