At Chick-fil-A, innovation is not merely a process, but a culture deeply embedded within the organization's fabric.

Their approach is to develop the innovation mindset at all levels, starting with leadership and gradually influencing the entire organization.

Michael McCathren, a senior innovation leader at Chick-fil-A, recently sat with Tommy Knoll, heading up Innov8rs CoLab, sharing his perspectives on cultivating an environment where innovation thrives.

A Culture That Champions Innovation

Michael transitioned from marketing to innovation and new ventures about seven years ago, and has been involved in setting up an in-house consulting group supporting internal project teams and business leaders, as well as in running their 30,000 square foot innovation center known as "Hatch," which is a testament to the organization's commitment to innovation.

Michael's journey through academia and his role in teaching an MBA course offered him insights into the innovation processes of over fifty global companies. A common thread among these companies was the presence of an innovation process but a lack of a culture prepared to embrace it.

"The single thread that's common across all those companies...was that they had a process, but they didn't have a culture that was necessarily ready to accept that process."

The gap, as identified by Michael, lies in the leadership's focus on optimizing the core business, often sidelining innovation due to perceived lack of time or resources. This observation underscores a critical challenge in innovation management: the need for a culture that not only accepts but champions innovation as a core value. This realization has shaped his approach to fostering a culture of innovation at Chick-fil-A.

Creating Innovators, Not Just Innovations

At Chick-fil-A, innovation is categorized into several domains, including menu, restaurant design, and processes, each following their established five-step innovation process, yet manifesting differently across departments.

To bring this process to live, Chick-fil-A's innovation culture is structured around three core elements:

  • Coaching, Consulting, and Facilitating: they assist teams in navigating the innovation process effectively
  • Culture and Community: They focus on building a culture that embraces innovation, which is crucial for the process to be successful
  • Education and Learning: They offer learning opportunities to all staff, enhancing their innovation skills right where they are

Michael has spearheaded an approach that emphasizes creating innovators as much as it does innovations. This is built on the understanding that for innovation to be truly sustainable, it must be deeply ingrained in the culture and mindset of every individual within the organization, not just encapsulated in processes or projects.

"If you can invest in creating innovators, then over time, they will create innovations."

At Chick-fil-A, they invest significantly in nurturing a culture where everyone is encouraged to think innovatively. About six years ago, they incorporated "We pursue what's next" into their core values. This statement encourages all employees to think beyond their current roles and consider how they can contribute to innovation, whether through small improvements or significant breakthroughs.

They emphasize leadership skills critical for innovation, such as questioning, networking, observing, and experimenting. Traditional leadership development often overlooks these skills, focusing instead on project management and operational efficiency.

Each skill serves a unique purpose:

  • Questioning enables leaders and their teams to challenge the status quo, pushing beyond surface-level understanding to uncover deeper insights and opportunities for innovation.
  • Networking, in this context, refers to the ability to connect with a diverse range of individuals and perspectives, facilitating the cross-pollination of ideas and fostering a culture of collaborative innovation.
  • Observing is about maintaining an acute awareness of the external and internal environments, identifying subtle shifts or trends that could signal opportunities for innovation.
  • Experimenting involves a willingness to take calculated risks, testing new ideas and approaches to learn what works and what doesn't, thereby driving continuous improvement and innovation.

Embedding Innovation Into Daily Operations

Fundamentally, developing these skills is about creating a safe space for experimentation and encouraging a diverse range of ideas, thereby nurturing a robust innovation culture that permeates every aspect of Chick-fil-A's operations.

"The true test of an innovation culture lies in its integration into the organization's daily operations."

Michael advocates for a model where innovation is not a separate entity or a special project but a fundamental aspect of every team member's role.

This requires a systemic approach to innovation, where processes are designed not only to generate new ideas but to ensure these ideas are evaluated, developed, and implemented effectively.

Key to this approach is the concept of "innovation by all," where every employee is encouraged and empowered to contribute to the innovation process. This democratization of innovation challenges the notion that innovation is the sole domain of a select few, instead promoting a culture where everyone is an innovator.

To support this, Michael highlights the importance of creating spaces and mechanisms that encourage collaboration, knowledge sharing, and experimentation across all levels of the organization, including company leadership.

For leaders to drive innovation, they must be open to influence from others.

This openness requires a departure from the conventional leadership model that emphasizes being the sole originator of ideas. Instead, it calls for a collaborative approach where diverse perspectives are valued, and cognitive diversity is sought after. By actively seeking input from a wide array of individuals, leaders can catalyze the innovation process, making it more inclusive and dynamic.

Moreover, Michael highlights the importance of leaders asking the right questions when new ideas are presented. This approach not only encourages deeper thinking but also fosters a culture where team members feel valued and heard. It’s about shifting the focus from the quality of the idea itself to the quality of the thinking that led to the idea. Such a culture is conducive to innovation because it prioritizes learning and growth over immediate success or failure.

As example, Michael mentions the development of the “Little Blue Menu” project, which initially began as a tenant in a ghost kitchen that evolved into a standalone venture, testing the company’s ability to adapt and learn.

This endeavor required a significant allocation of resources across various departments, challenging their traditional resource management strategies. Despite the obstacles, the project yielded valuable lessons to apply in future initiatives.