How does innovation work? Some believe it’s an inherently muddled and unpredictable affair. Some reckon it’s a random process that stems from a combination of “blue-sky” thinking and pure luck. In keeping with the notion of “organised chaos”, some argue that it can be planned.

Amid these competing theories, one thing is pretty certain: Innovation is about change. What’s interesting – and occasionally puzzling – is that sometimes it’s hard to discern exactly what the change is. We can highlight the complexities that are frequently involved with the salutary tale of none other than the once-great but now comparatively humble chicken Kiev.

According to a contemporary news report, supermarket sales of chilled “luxury” ready-meals rose during and after the financial crisis. Given that anything bearing a “luxury” prefix might be expected to feel the pinch in straitened times, this seems to make little sense. What’s the explanation?

Let’s first take a trip back to 1979, when Marks & Spencer introduced the aforementioned chicken Kiev. Priced at a princely £1.99 for two, this was the first chilled “luxury” ready-meal. Since the origins of the recipe have always been disputed, we can safely infer that M&S paid no royalties to any “inventor” – just as rival supermarkets paid no royalties to M&S when they began churning out their own versions.

The Kiev’s fortunes have waned somewhat since those heady, pioneering days. Thanks to economies of scale and competition from other retailers, the price hasn’t increased significantly over the course of nigh on 40 years. The fact is that consumer attitudes aren’t what they were. What once constituted a “dining out” experience has been reduced to junk-food status and supplanted by myriad “gourmet” offerings of greater complexity – and these are still more economical than a night out or even a takeaway.

Meanwhile, the meteoric growth of the chilled food sector has continued. Contrary to common assumptions, though, it hasn’t been driven by clever marketing. It has been driven by IT developments that have revolutionised supply chain logistics and improved the delivery of perishable items.

So the rise and fall of the chicken Kiev in no way represents a neat and linear chain of cause and effect. Instead, we have a complicated web of different agendas and an array of organisations making short-term gains from innovations borrowed from elsewhere.

Does any of this help us in our quest to understand how innovation works? Yes, because what we might usefully conclude – not least with precise definitions in mind – is that innovation is the successful exploitation of novel ideas. Innovation is how we carry ideas into actions and bring value by doing things differently, whether in terms of products, processes, positioning or paradigms.

Moreover, the story shows us how innovation is about satisfying unmet needs. It’s about asking the right questions and coming up with the right answers. And that means it can be planned. By way of further illustration – and with those who find chicken Kiev inherently unappetising firmly in mind – let’s consider recent events in the wonderful world of lettuce.

Almost three-quarters of the US’s lettuce is grown in California’s Salinas Valley. Despite the quality of their wares earning deserved renown, producers are constantly seeking feedback with a view to further enhancements. Customers might want their lettuces to be bigger or greener or rounder or to have a longer shelf-life – all very much in the realms of the incremental.

Although we might, therefore, infer that the scope for radical innovation in the lettuce sector is decidedly limited, one day there came an idea that completely shook up the market. It arrived suddenly and from an unexpected source. It wasn’t the work of a producer, a farmer, a retailer or even a scientist, yet it proved utterly transformational. It was packaging.

The modern-day phenomenon of bagged salad stemmed from the realisation that most working people fresh home from work don’t particularly revel in the chore of washing and cutting up a lettuce. It really was as simple – and as brilliant – as that. Thus, once again, an unmet need was satisfied – a classic hallmark of a genuine innovation.

This breakthrough has also brought other advantages. Because it obviates the demand for bigger or greener or rounder lettuce and also affords a longer shelf-life, bagged salad is more cost-effective for producers and retailers. And lettuce – unlike the poor old chicken Kiev – has long since become a premium product, with consumers happy to pay for the privilege of convenience.

Food for thought, as they say. The debate over quite how innovation works will doubtless rumble on, but – in keeping with the examples discussed here – we perhaps shouldn’t make too much of a meal of it. Ultimately, as the respective sagas of the chicken Kiev and the lettuce demonstrate, all would-be innovators could do a lot worse than to ask themselves just two basic questions:

  • What can we do better?
  • What can we do differently?

Paul Kirkham is a researcher in the field of entrepreneurial creativity with Nottingham University Business School’s Haydn Green Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (HGIIE) and co-author of ‘Building an Entrepreneurial Organisation’.

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