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The Flamin' Hot Story of Inclusive Innovation at the Fast Company Impact Council

“The only way to breakout is to innovate and the only to innovate is to diversify.”

This was Eva Longoria's message at Fast Company’s 2023 #FCImpactcouncil Monday after the HUGELY successful first weekend of her directorial debut Flamin’ Hot. The story of the metaphoric rise of Richard Montanez, who, in his own words, was a Mexican immigrant who landed a job as a janitor at Frito Lay. When in the heart of the bad economy in the 1990s and after about a solid decade of loyal employment, he had the idea for a super spicy Cheeto when the company desperately needed breakout strategies and ideas.

In the movie scene, when Montanez looks for support for his idea from his superiors, he is met with immediate resistance from his first line of middle management. He was told something that is all too familiar for many frontline workers today:

“Just tell them the janitor has a bright idea? New products take years to develop, costs millions to launch and they do not get created by blue collar hoodlums...” was the response of the local plant manager.

But Richard was different. He had the courage to cold call then PepsiCo CEO Roger Enrico who took his pitch and backed the idea for the super spicy Cheeto that ended up creating a billion dollar industry.

A couple of key take-aways:

1.) Everyone Innovates and Good Ideas Can Come from Anywhere and Everywhere: Here the “janitor” could easily be swapped out for anyone with a breakout idea but whose perceived lack of something (usually “experience”, credentials, title, or education) rubs up against the status quo of an organization.

Luckily in the case of Frito Lay, the CEO listened to the outsider whose unique point of view ultimately created a $1 billion dollar market opportunity.

At InnovationForce, we say everyone innovates – especially the frontline. And testing ideas shouldn’t take years, or millions of dollars when minimal viable experimentation will do. Start small, go fast.

2.) Diversity of Thought is Key. Longoria’s movie and the message is a triumph for anyone studying innovation and the entrepreneurial impact "underdogs, misfits and outsiders" can have to LEAD inspirational high-performing teams (Adam Grant and Malcolm Gladwell would certainly agree). In fact the best leaders can come from the most unexpected places in the business. Leaders are not always the ones found in the board room - most can be found on the frontlines who share the need to solve the challenges of the business that they encounter every day. Its important to look for the contrarians and give voice to those in the room that may go unheard.

For Longoria herself, she compares her opportunity to direct the movie, where less than 5% of directors are women, to also serve as inspiration for those underrepresented trailblazers who "only get only get one shot, must work twice as hard, twice as fast and with half the budget."

She wanted the underrepresented in business to know "you matter" and we wholeheartedly agree.

3.) Its About Pitching Ideas and Being Connected to the Purpose. Even though Montanez did not know how to write a marketing or business plan, he had to figure out how to make his "pitch." When he did get his one shot in front of the executives, he did not know all the business "lingo" but his passion was connected to the business problem - how to expand the audience (or market share) for the product. The passion and connected purpose allowed others to get behind the idea and explore if it could catch fire.

At InnovationForce we see this a lot. If you want to have inclusive innovation, you must include tools, aids, coaching and training that allows anyone to make a decent pitch. You also need to create the right "receiving mode" from others to be able to hear the pitch for the art of the possible before it is shot down by the department who is challenged by it the most - usually because they think they already "own it" or alternatively, they don't want to own it moving beyond the concept stage,

4. Lastly, Experimentation Can Take Days to Months not Years. In today's fast moving digital world, it is becoming easier to test ideas much faster. We live in a "just in time" society where agility and rapid experimentation can promote learning which is the most valuable step in the innovation phase. As Longoria said in her talk, "you can only learn by doing" and we agree. Without creating cultures of learning that create a safety net for innovators, you will not find the next Flamin' Hot idea inside your organization - because when ideas are stale, they don't scale.

At InnovationForce we see the need for rapid experimentation, but also rapid DECISION MAKING that goes hand-in-hand in the innovation process so that everyone understands where they stand, what they should do and what the next step should be. The clearer the steps, stages and expectations, the more likely you can create not only more great ideas but the psychological safety to always pick the BEST ideas for your business.

Get good at safe hole-punching or as Linda Hill says, "having the good fight" to create Creative Abrasion and quickly move to Creative Resolution and Creative Agility. And, this is not just the secret for innovation - it is the secret underlying every great high performing team.

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