We all know we need to learn new things to fuel innovation and growth. But what if I said it could be just as powerful to un-learn the “myths” that confine our thinking?

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Erik Falck, Director of Innovation & Growth Platforms, Johnsonville LLC

One of my favorite hobbies is playing the guitar, but that wasn’t always the case. When I first started, I believed several unspoken myths — all of which were keeping me from getting better. The worst of these was assuming that learning the guitar was primarily an “artistic” endeavor. The truth is, at first, learning to play an instrument is mostly about developing muscle memory. That’s because music must happen in rhythm, in real time. It’s more like learning a sport than learning to paint or write. When I tested this myth by changing up my practice routine to focus on muscle memory drills, the myth was busted, and I finally started making progress.

In a similar way, the growth of our businesses also depends on busting myths. I lead Innovation at Johnsonville LLC, based in Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin. Today we are the US leader in sausage and sell in over forty global markets. But the company, which is privately owned, might still be only a regional Midwest brand if it hadn’t decided a couple decades ago to challenge two key myths:

  • There’s no practical way to sell fresh sausage coast to coast
  • We can get everyone to love bratwurst as much as we do here in the Midwest.

In the process of busting these myths, Johnsonville adopted new supply chain technologies (including low temperature storage) and learned how to make great sausage that satisfies local tastes (such as Chorizo and Parmesan). Over time, these innovations helped make Johnsonville the national brand and global enterprise it is today.

Many longstanding myths like these might naturally get retired, given enough time and employee turnover. But “time and turnover” isn’t a proactive leadership strategy. Since growth and innovation is partly a matter of speed, we set out to develop a way to accelerate this process.

We identified four key steps to Myth Busting:

1. State the myth in a testable way

This is critical, because in everyday conversation, we often phrase our myths in ways that make them impossible to prove or disprove. “We should market to people who already love sausage,” is not testable. But a statement such as, “Loyal category buyers are a larger growth opportunity than non-loyal buyers,” can be investigated.

2. State the potential business benefits

What’s it worth to bust this myth? A little motivation helps get people engaged and thinking. Besides the bottom line, don’t forget to consider benefits to quality, culture, complexity, and career opportunities. 

3. Complete one or more “tests” of the myth

The amount of testing you’ll need to do depends on many factors, such as the consequences of being wrong and the level of skepticism in the organization. Tests can come in at least three different levels, ranging from quick and easy, to more complex and robust:

  • Level 1 – What can be readily observed today? Are there examples in the marketplace now, existing data we can mine, or an expert to consult?
  • Level 2 – What can we learn via research? Is there a concept, survey, or A/B test we could field?
  • Level 3 – What would it take to validate this with in-market testing?  

It helps to identify a ‘skeptic’ — someone who is willing to both defend the myth, and indicate what level of evidence they would accept to consider it definitively busted.

4. Secure broad agreement that the myth is busted or confirmed.

Since myths are often embedded in the culture, this step is key. Before you do any tests, it helps to identify a “skeptic” — someone (often a senior leader) who is willing to both defend the myth, and indicate what level of evidence they would accept to consider it definitively busted.

Having a process is one thing, but how did we actually generate a list of our current myths to test? This turned out to be the easy part. Once we showed how busting old myths was part of what made our company what it is today, and gave our people permission (and resources) to challenge accepted beliefs, the myth ideas started to flow. We piloted the Myth Busting approach with our marketing department, where small teams easily generated more than thirty testable myths in a few brainstorming sessions, including:

  • Without customer X, a product launch cannot be sustainable and scalable (busted)
  • Consumers will never pay for a premium-quality frozen meat product (busted)
  • Investing in e-commerce ads is just shifting sales from one channel to another (busted)
  • Consumers are more brand loyal in e-commerce than they are in store (confirmed)
  • Most consumers know the difference between fresh and fully-cooked sausage (mixed).

After each myth was busted or confirmed, the teams began leveraging each nugget of learning to drive new or optimized growth initiatives.

Word about what was happening in marketing spread quickly. Next, our executive team asked me to roll out Myth Busting across the organization with all functional leaders. These leaders’ enthusiasm and the boldness of their myths exceeded even my high expectations, including:

  • Drilling down to the lowest possible level of detail gets the best business results (Finance)
  • A manufacturing facility cannot get to zero unplanned downtime (Operations)
  • We always need forecasts to run our business (Continuous Improvement).

After functional leaders shared their Myth Busting results and action plans with our executive team, CEO Nick Meriggioli remarked, “This has jump-started our culture to hopefully never stop questioning the status quo, and to continue to push beyond our boundaries to find new and better ways to do things in all areas.”

It’s now common in meetings to hear someone ask, ‘Is that true, or is it a myth?’

Myth Busting spread at Johnsonville even better than I imagined it would. It’s now common in meetings to hear someone ask, “Is that true, or is it a myth?” We just started our second cycle of formal Myth Busting with the marketing department, and we’re even challenging parts of the growth strategies that we developed after the first round! New thinking and innovation are flowing more easily and naturally from our teams.  

As corporate innovators, our role is to think differently and question the status quo. It’s in our nature, it can be exciting, but it also has its challenges.  One of the most enjoyable results of introducing Myth Busting was being able to step back and see so many other colleagues play the “disruptor” role, and to play it so effectively. A few have even nominated me to be their myth skeptic!

Introducing Myth Busting in your organization can be an effective way to unlock more growth, and improve your company’s overall culture of innovation.

 

Erik M. Falck is Director of Innovation & Growth Platforms at Johnsonville LLC. Falck’s views are his own, and do not necessarily represent those of Johnsonville. InnoLead welcomes contributed pieces from current corporate professionals; our guidelines are here.