How We’re Building a Culture That Supports Innovation at Chick-fil-A

Leo Chan, Senior Innovation Lead, Chick-fil-A

By Leo Chan, Contributing Columnist
Senior Innovation Lead, Chick-fil-A

Imagine if all of your employees were empowered to innovate, and your company thrived with new ideas. Imagine if you could insulate your company from disruptions with new revenue streams. Imagine if your company joined the ranks of the world’s most innovative companies — like Apple, Netflix, or Amazon.

With a strong culture of innovation, all of this could be possible.

But let’s be real. Innovation is hard. It doesn’t just happen. It takes strategy, discipline, and intentionality. If you want a strong culture of innovation, you have to make it happen.

I want to share in this piece some of my advice on how to begin the process of creating that culture.

Here’s what we’ll cover:

  • People
  • Process
  • Taxonomy
  • Programming
  • Communication
  • Thinking frameworks

PEOPLE

Build a culture where it’s everyone’s job to innovate.

I’ve worked in two models of innovation: centralized and decentralized. Centralized is where there are specific employees responsible for innovation. The challenge with this model is that no one else in the company innovates (or a limited number of people do). Often, they assume it’s the innovation team’s job.

Decentralized is where it’s everyone’s job is to innovate. At Chick-fil-A, we follow a decentralized approach. Every employee, in every department, is encouraged to push limits and think outside the box. This means that we can impact our business in every single area.

It’s truly powerful: When it’s everyone’s job to innovate, you have a much higher likelihood of having a new culture take root. One of the most well-known examples of supporting innovation culturally is Google. They have a concept called 20 percent time. Any employee can devote 20 percent of their workweek to any project they like. This resulted in Gmail, Google Maps, and AdSense.

But even with a decentralized model, it is important to have dedicated people who are pushing innovation forward. At Chick-fil-A, we address this in two ways: with an Enterprise Innovation team and Innovation Coaches. Our Enterprise Innovation team is composed of two full-time staff. (I’m one of the two.) It’s our sole mission is to help advance innovation at Chick-fil-A, which includes things like strategy, training, consultation, communication, process, and application.

We also have a group called Innovation Coaches. These are the champions and ambassadors of innovation at Chick-fil-A, and they are critical to the decentralized model. They’re passionate about innovation, they think outside the box, and they know our innovation process. Our coaches — we now have more than 50 — are embedded within almost all of our departments. Their expertise in both their department and innovation is extremely helpful – they’re able to bridge both worlds together and help make innovation meaningful in their department.

PROCESS

Once you have the right people in place, how will your company implement innovation? At Chick-fil-A, we have a five-step version of design thinking that we have adapted into our central innovation process. The steps are understand, imagine, prototype, validate, and launch. Our staff know these five steps, what it means, and how to get started.

To reinforce this, we require all new staff to take a 90-minute class called Innovation Basics, run by our team. It introduces them to innovation and the innovation process. Our innovation process is deeply embedded in our culture. Innovation projects are categorized by what stage of the innovation process they are in. Project leaders plan schedules around how much time they think they’ll need for each stage. We even hold various sessions according to our process like “understand sessions” or “imagine sessions.”

Taxonomy

Establishing a common taxonomy around innovation is very important to build culture. Define words and meanings so that everyone has the same understanding when they talk about and apply innovation. That helps you be clear and consistent when you talk to colleagues about what they’re doing.

Here are some words you could consider for your taxonomy: innovation, creativity, failure, success, pilot, and test. A common taxonomy establishes a mental framework for your employees when it comes to innovation. At Chick-fil-A, our innovation taxonomy is critical to our culture. When we talk about innovation, we know exactly what our colleagues mean. We know what stage projects are in the process, we know what challenges and work are involved in each stage, and we know how we can support and help.

PROGRAMMING

Programming can have a huge impact on culture. What type of opportunities are you providing your employees when it comes to innovation? Programming can help build culture in several ways, including:

  • Shaping mentality
  • Teaching principles and techniques related to innovation
  • Encouraging networking and collaboration
  • Building energy around innovation

When it comes to programming, consider various generations and what’s meaningful to them. Gens X, Y, and Z value different things, so this can and should impact how you plan events. One great example of offering consistent programming is Harvard’s Innovation Lab. They regularly hold events for entrepreneurially-minded students, as often as two to four times a week. They host workshops, speaker series, mixers, roundtables, and more on a variety of topics around innovation. All of these events build innovation culture. Can you imagine the type of energy you could create if you’re able to scale up to that kind of frequency and type of programming? It’s very powerful.

COMMUNICATION

Communication is critical in shaping culture. Your innovation team might be doing amazing work, but if you’re not sharing your stories, no one will know about it. Communication keeps energy and excitement around innovation and helps keep it top of mind for employees. Find existing communication channels in your company and leverage opportunities to share your story.

Think about the best forms of communication to share your message. One way to do this is by thinking about innovation as a new product release. How would you market and communicate it to the masses? At Chick-fil-A, we use various communication channels to tell our innovation story. We use our employee-wide email channel to communicate events and provide updates on innovation activity. We use our internal social platform to share trends, news, and stimulate thinking. We use videos to capture stories of the work we do, as well as event recaps and highlights. We leverage our intranet and digital screens across the headquarters campus to promote our work. We have even used sticker clings on our company shuttles and refrigerator doors for big events. Get creative, and a build a communication plan using whatever tactics necessary to get the word out!

Thinking frameworks

Innovation culture thrives when employees have the following five thinking frameworks:

1. Valuing collaboration. Collaboration drives innovation and creativity. Collaboration encourages the discussion, exchange, and re-interpretation of ideas, which can lead to more innovative outcomes.

2. Intentionally diversifying. Diversity of thought, skill, experience, and background are key ingredients for innovation because it increases creativity. Encourage your employees to add diversity in their meetings and work groups.

3. Feeling safe. Employees must feel safe, so that they will share ideas, experiment, fail, and take risks.

4. Feeling free of judgements. Employees must feel like they are free of judgements of others because judgement shuts people down, eliminates the sharing of ideas, experimentation, failure, and risk-taking.

5. Embracing failure and risk-taking. When employees feel safe and free of judgment, this will enable them to embrace failure and risk-taking. Failure is so important in innovation because it gives the gift of experience and learning. Risk-taking enables employees to try new things. Your employees should have the confidence and courage to fail and not be reprimanded. They should feel like risk-taking is celebrated.

In conclusion…

Changing culture in any organization that has been around for more than a few years is difficult. It requires strategy, discipline, and intentionality. The alternative, however — being disrupted by other companies or losing your relevance with customers — is far worse. Hopefully, these building blocks will be useful to you as you set out to upgrade and evolve the innovation culture of your organization.

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Upcoming event: We’ll visit Chick-fil-A’s “Hatch” innovation center in Atlanta next month, as part of our Atlanta Field Study. Join us December 4-6, or check out our calendar of other upcoming IL in-person events.

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