In this episode, we wanted to know, “How can teams set innovation initiatives up for success?” To get best practices, Innovation Leader’s Kaitlin Milliken sat down with Robert Price, Executive Chef at Philadelphia Downtown Marriott, to discuss how he built the hotel’s 1201 Innovation Lab. Additional guests include, Danielle Cohn of Comcast NBCUniversal and Natalie Painchaud of Innosight. Read the transcript and see additional information below.
- Get advice for your innovation initiative’s first year in our Pointers PDF.
- Learn more about Comcast NBCUniversal’s LIFT Labs.
- Read Natalie Painchaud’s article on breaking down barriers to innovation.
This episode is brought to you by Innosight. Innosight helps forward-thinking companies navigate disruptive change and own the future. Their team can help your company develop new growth strategies and build innovation capabilities. Find out more at innosight.com where you can also read their new Harvard Business Review article, “Breaking Down the Barriers to Innovation.”
Danielle Cohn: “The most important thing is to do the research.”
Robert Price: “Be fully vested and have a lot of passion.”
Natalie Painchaud: “Break that addiction to business as usual.”
Kaitlin Milliken: Hey, you’re listening to Innovation Answered, the podcast for corporate innovators. I’m Kaitlin Milliken from Innovation Leader.
Our question this episode: How can teams set innovation initiatives up for success?
Kickstarting an innovation group or initiative is a lot like building a house. Begin on a shoddy foundation, and the whole project may be doomed from the outset. But taking something from an idea to a well constructed innovation program is much easier said than done. Figuring out the right place to start can be daunting, especially if an innovator is given a vague mandate.
Danielle Cohn: Five years ago, there was a press release, and there was one line in the press release that said that the new Comcast Technology Center would have a dedicated floor for startups. That was the press release. And then I started four years ago with essentially a white sheet of paper to build what that program would be. And so in its entirety, it was announced about five years ago, and then in the last four years is when we filled out the program. We took that line in a press release and turned it into what LIFT Labs is today.
Kaitlin Milliken: That was Danielle Cohn. Danielle is the Vice President for Entrepreneurial Engagement for Comcast NBCUniversal. She’s also the head of LIFT Labs, housed in the Comcast Technology Center in Philadelphia. LIFT Labs provides a variety of programming. Selected startups work in the space to create new media products, other entrepreneurs participate in a 13-week accelerator program run by TechStars. LIFT Labs also hosts educational events that anyone in Philadelphia can participate in. According to Danielle, LIFT Labs was carefully designed. She says her team worked with over 1,500 startup founders, asking them what elements make a successful corporate-startup partnership.
Danielle Cohn: The most important thing is to do the research and just like any good product owner, anyone should ask their customers for feedback from the beginning. That has benefited us a lot. We’ve listened to a lot of feedback from founders, we’ve listened and toured a lot of other programs — not just in the corporate space, but in the nonprofit space and international space. We’ve gone to dozens of other programs, dozens of other accelerators, and you learn by going, and seeing, and doing.
Kaitlin Milliken: When it comes to building new initiatives, innovators can benefit from doing their homework. Talking to people who have launched a similar project can help you avoid pitfalls early on.
But what comes after the research stage? In order to find out, we visited the 1201 Innovation Lab in Marriott’s downtown Philadelphia location. We’ll be back from 1201 after this break.
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Kaitlin Milliken: And we’re back at the Philadelphia Downtown Marriott. Situated in the heart of the city, the hotel frequently hosts conferences. When looking for venues, event planners will visit several different sites before making a final decision. That’s where the 1201 Innovation Lab comes in.
Event planners are welcomed into the lab for wining and dining. They take a seat at a farmhouse table to eat a meal catered especially to their group. Each dish captures the spirit of their event with themed courses. Robert Price the Executive Chef at Philadelphia Downtown Marriott explains.
Robert Price: We had a romance writer group come in. Every course we did, we did a lot of research. I’m talking days and days of romance novels and trying to find food references in romance novels. And we basically created paper novels, and you had to turn a chapter for your next menu dish, right, and each one was a reference to a very famous book and what verbiage was in there that related to the food. They completely got a kick out of that.
Kaitlin Milliken: Creating a detailed personalized experience helps the hotel win event planner’s favor and close deals for big events — and it’s working. According to a company press release, large group bookings have increased by more than 43 percent since the lab has opened.
The lab itself is small and tucked away. Some innovation centers are decked out with big signs that shout, “This is where change happens.” 1201 is much more understated. In fact, it’s almost hidden like a speakeasy.
Robert Price: Philadelphia is one of the first areas that had speakeasies. One of the code words to get into a speakeasy was called “blind tiger.” So I thought, “Wow, we could do this event, a blind tiger event.” And basically you could be handed a card and the card says, “You’re invited to this” and it shows a lantern, and then you see a lantern in the lobby, and then another one a few feet further. And basically you can follow the lanterns to a certain door, so it’s a really cool feel to get here. It makes it feel special.
Kaitlin Milliken: To get to the Innovation Lab Chef Price and I walked through the hotel sales office and down a long hallway. We then stopped at a door with a vintage butcher knife as a handle. The journey builds a sense of excitement and exclusivity. Behind the door, visitors are welcomed into an old restaurant kitchen that has been renovated into a testing ground for new ideas. According to Price, he built this space on a budget of $20,000. A tight spending limit allowed for creativity and ingenuity.
Parts of the wall are decorated with repurposed shipping pallets for that wooden, rustic feel. Bright lights from IKEA illuminate a hydroponic garden system that grows fresh herbs. There a little easter eggs everywhere. A decorative P and K are mounted on a wall with an oar in between so, P oar K. Pork. It’s a pun!
After a walk through of the space, Chef Price and I settled down at the dining table to discuss how the innovation lab got off the ground.
So we’re in Marriott’s 1201 Innovation Lab in Philadelphia. Can you talk about the work that goes on in the space?
Robert Price: So this room is primarily used for site inspections. When we have a large group coming, and maybe they’re thinking about choosing Philadelphia, or Boston, or New York, they’ll visit several different cities and many different hotels. And while we have them here, we like to put on a show for them. But this space has a lot of other purposes too. We do private meals in here. Private receptions. The chefs come in here too as a place to kind of relax and as a stress relief to get away from the hustle and bustle of the kitchen. We use it for our own private meetings. And when we’re working on some processes, or maybe some ingredients that we haven’t used before, we like to do that away from the kitchen so that we’re not distracted by the day to day operation.
Kaitlin Milliken: You started the lab in 2017 with a tight budget — $20,000 — which for a large company may seem small, in an old restaurant kitchen. So that seems like a really tall order. Why did you decide that that was something you wanted to pursue?
Robert Price: When I first arrived at the hotel, food and beverage was… There wasn’t a good feeling of food and beverage in the hotel, so to speak. It felt like it was rooms driven. You didn’t hear employees talk about food and beverage. And so, when I came on board, this was a mission of mine to try to revive that food and beverage energy and to make the hotel proud of the food and beverage within the hotel.
So we started on getting back to a from-scratch kitchen. And my idea in mind was eventually to come up with a brand or something that people could easily relate to or talk about in the hotel, that we could eventually maybe market.
So with that being said, 2017, we came off of a really, really slow year. We headed into slow season, for convention hotels. It’s usually December and January. We’d already used up a lot of our vacation time. And therefore, we had a group cancel due to a snowstorm in February. So we asked our general manager if we could reinvent this space as a project we could take on to sustain basically our hours or our paychecks. So that’s really where the idea came from.
Basically, when we had such a bad year in 2017, we collectively as a culinary team said, “We’ll do everything we can to make sure that we can produce sales in the hotel, assist the sales team, so that doesn’t happen again.”
Kaitlin Milliken: So you mentioned that you had to pitch this idea to the folks at Marriott. We find that, when getting innovation started, having support is so important. How did you get that support once you identified the need?
Robert Price: Well, we went to the general manager with the project idea. This was a functional kitchen, even though it had been abandoned. So this was a tall order. And I’m not so sure that he had the confidence or knew that we had the skill level to do it.
One of my sous chefs at the time was very handy with computers. So I asked him to do a 3D rendition of what we thought the space might be. And you know, at the time, we don’t really know because this isn’t our forte, but we knew we had an idea of what it could be, possibly. So we presented the computer rendition to our general manager, who then has to present that to ownership, because he has to ask them for the funds and that process can take some time.
So in the meantime, we started on the project, prior to having full approval. We thought if we could at least get the kitchen demolition, get all the equipment out, which was a tall order. So we had to, you know, cut down a lot of pieces. Our drains were raised in the kitchen, we had to break our drains out and redo the concrete to get it a smooth floor, we thought if we could at least get it a clean room and an open room that maybe they could see the size of the space, and that it would eventually ROI or have a return on investment.
So with that being said, towards the end of February, we finally got approval. However, we were back in the action in the kitchen. So we felt that this project probably would have taken us a good 45 days plus, but it ended up taking almost six months because we’re busy again. So we were having to come in very early in the morning to finish up some work here, there, or in between functions. We’d run down and tackle a project, but that’s kind of how it got started.
Kaitlin Milliken: So you mentioned that juggling so many different tasks was one of those challenges getting started. Are there any other challenges that your teams faced in that early phase and how did you overcome them?
Robert Price: So it’s easier when you’re doing a project like this, to tackle it all together. There was basically five of us that built this. Only two or three of us were here at any one time. So that presented a large challenge. As well as some of the things that I challenged the team with, that aren’t things that we do on a normal basis. You know, I knew that I wanted to get into hydroponics. Building a hydroponic system and trying to still maintain our budget, our low budget, was going to be…I knew it was going to be a big challenge.
Kaitlin Milliken: Once you had the space, more finished and refurbished in the way that you liked, what happened after that?
Robert Price: So we brought the ownership in, they were extremely pleased with the project as it was coming along. And I feel that we, as the kitchen, had a much larger vision for the space. A lot of hotels have a space that they do these things for. But usually, in most hotels, that was an old closet of some sort that they put a small table in, and they and they do these things, where because of the size of this space, it leaves us so much more room. And because I think that helped us that the project took longer, because it allowed for the creative process to come naturally and not a forced creation.
So, you know, as we got to another space or another thought would happen, you know, then we would come in and tackle that. We built this room to be used seven days a week, you know, and not just for this purpose. And the reason I love this table was because there’s an industrial crank base on it so I can raise this up to a reception height and get rid of the chairs, and now we can do receptions in here, right? I put a computer into the TV so we can stream to it, so this could be used as an office if you wanted to. And the black walls in here, we use magnetic and chalkboard so it could be used for think tank work and brainstorming sessions. So we really put a lot of thought into almost every single space in here.
Kaitlin Milliken: So you mentioned being flexible and looking for creative solutions as something that really helped bring the space into its own. What other factors were really helpful in getting innovation started in 1201?
Robert Price: My team, they’re very creative, and they’re extremely supportive. When we write menus, we like to write them collectively. And we take a long time to develop them so that they’re not forced. And sometimes I feel that when you’re trying to create something, it’s just not the day and then it doesn’t work. And you have to abandon it and then come back when the feeling’s right.
I think just the good camaraderie that we have within culinary and the drive to do so. Because I feel like to innovate a space like this and to…you have to have extreme passion, and you have to have a lot of sacrifice. Like I say, during the slow season, we shouldn’t have to work 12 or 14, 15 hours. But we would do that on those days because we wanted to get this space going too, you know. So there was a lot of drive and passion and hard work that went into it. And I feel that we appreciate this space much more because of that.
Kaitlin Milliken: So we talked to innovators in their different spaces. There’s a lot of pressure to know the return that these initiatives have for the business units or for the company as a whole. Can you talk a little bit about how about 1201 Innovation Lab has affected revenue or booking at Marriott?
Robert Price: Because the hotel never used to have a space like this, our sales team didn’t know how to use it. They’d never had one before, while many other hotels had. But we had already done several site visits already. And I want to say at the six month mark, we’d had at that time 14 site visits or so. When we had booked something like 11 or 12 out of the 14, and the ones that were turned down was due to space issues or they needed extra rooms at another hotel that just couldn’t work out at that time. The sales team at that time started to see, “Wow, this is kind of a game changer.”
And still to this day, you know, we started this in 2017. Even as of…I want to say, two months ago, one of our sales managers said to us, sent out an email to the entire hotel, “I’ve never had a client cancel all the rest of their site visits in all other cities, after the site visit in this room. This is a complete game changer for us.” So it has drastically changed our sales strategy, and we’re proud of it.
Kaitlin Milliken: Is this space in this type of innovation lab in the kitchen, is that unique to this particular part of Marriott or have you spread the idea to other hotels?
Robert Price: I will say I know some other chefs, after hearing or seeing things that I’ve done, I’ve seen competitiveness, when I went when it comes to doing a room. A very close friend of mine in Texas has done a couple in his hotel. He’s in a very, very, very large hotel and and he’s done some really, really neat things out there with a much larger budget. Butwe’re proud of what we did here with with under $20,000.
Kaitlin Milliken: And in terms of…sort of the folks that work in the space in this innovation lab, how many people is that is that like four or five? I just kind of want to get a sense of scale.
Robert Price: It all depends on what project that we’re working on or what site we’re working on. And, you know, we learn a lot from just the site visits that we do, because we really try to tailor it towards the group that’s coming in, especially if they have a unique conference or something we feel that we can chew on. We had an archaeological society coming and, you know, that they weren’t doing any food and beverage with us. But still the hotel, the hotel win is important to us. And because we have landed contracts where they were so impressed by this room that they then end up spending F&B money with us.
So when they came, we did a six course meal, all of them serve with bones, some sort of bone in each meal and, and some things buried under edible sand where you had to brush it off, remove it. They were ecstatic that someone took, for the first time, they said in their time managing their meetings, someone took that much interest into what they do.
Kaitlin Milliken: So really personalizing the experience.
Robert Price: A lot of detail goes in, we spend days and days and days planning each and every site visit. So those that come that work with us that we bring in here, they learn a lot. And we learn a lot in that in that creative process.
Kaitlin Milliken: So are those ideas mostly coming from you and your sous chefs or are other folks pitching some of the projects that you’re working on?
Robert Price: Mostly myself and the sous chefs. You know, I have a very good network of chefs throughout the company. Chefs that I grew up with, and some used to work for me. And so you know, we all talk about things that we’re working on, and one will hear an idea and be like, “Oh, well, you know what, I’m going to take that and run with it, right? So I’m trying to one up.” And it becomes a competitive thing and something fun that we all enjoy.
Kaitlin Milliken: Great. So we always like to close out our interviews with a section on learning and advice. In your experience starting the space and getting innovation going, what are the big takeaways that you’d like to share with other innovators?
Robert Price: You know, I think if you’re going to take on an innovative project, you have to be fully vested and have a lot of passion about the project. I’m not so sure if someone said, “Here, I want you to do this,” that it would come out the same, you know? But because you’re driving it, it becomes a lot more intimate, right?
I think that you have to have a lot of sacrifice and a whole lot of patience when you’re doing it, you know? When we talk about a room like this and just even color, paint color. I mean, we painted and painted and repainted because it just didn’t feel right. So you have to have so much patience in an innovative project, I feel.
And then of course, when there’s budget involved, you have to be very savvy and, and even more patient, I guess, because you’ll see something that you might be in love with it. You just have to let it go because it’s gonna fold the project.
Kaitlin Milliken: Even when budget and resources are tight, passionate people can still find ways to bring innovation to life.
What else can teams do to unlock that drive and build a foundation for innovation? To find out we called Natalie Painchaud. Natalie is the Director of Learning at Innosight, a growth strategy and innovation firm that helps organizations navigate disruptive change. Natalie is also the co-author of the new Harvard Business Review article “Breaking Down Barriers to Innovation.” We should also note that Innosight is a sponsor of this podcast episode.
Kaitlin Milliken: So Natalie, you co-authored the article b“Breaking Down Barriers to Innovation.” Let’s get started there with barriers. What are the challenges that are often overlooked, that team should be aware of when they’re starting to work on innovation?
Natalie Painchaud: The biggest challenge that we’ve seen that holds companies back on innovation is what we call organizational inertia, or said differently an addiction to business as usual. So these are day to day routines, rituals that stifle innovation, and we’ve all heard the expression or probably said it ourselves of “that’s just the way things are done here.” And in our work really, each organization has their own specific challenges or what we call blockers. And because each organization is so different, we recommend a simple, I’ll call it like a mad libs type of exercise for teams working on innovation. So simply starting with “wouldn’t it be great if we” to get to that desired behavior goal, and then finishing with “but we don’t because” to really understand that challenge or blocker.
Kaitlin Milliken: And we hear a lot at Innovation Leader that getting the right foundation is really important. But what can happen two teams that struggle to find their footing early on?
Natalie Painchaud: I’ll answer this question, but just sharing some of the common failure modes that we see for innovation teams. So the first is just having unclear scope and objectives. So who ultimately is the owner, the sponsor, the client? What’s in bounds? What’s out of bounds? What’s the timeframe? What are the expected deliverables? Really, what’s the key question to answer? And then who can the team reach out to? So that’s a big challenge that we see just unclear scope.
And then the second is more at the human level, which is just a lack of trust. So once you’ve got that team up and running, are they really taking the time to get to know each other? What their strengths are? What their opportunity areas are? You know, have you taken the time to really discuss how you’ll operate as a team? What you’ll do when you disagree? How you manage when members get pulled in different directions?
Innovation does require doing something different, and it is difficult. And so it really requires teams that are resilient, supportive, so that they don’t get discouraged too early and have that strength to fight the inevitable battles. And also combined with having that vulnerability to take some risks. So those are two kind of common failure modes that we’ve seen.
Kaitlin Milliken: Building trust early on in new initiatives — that’s something we hear is so important. How should teams get that trust and confidence?
Natalie Painchaud: The most important thing is really to demonstrate early results and to share what you’ve learned along the way. So I think if you’re starting up and innovation team and you’re learning a lot, really being thoughtful about what can we share back with the broader community and how can we help them in their day to day work? So talk about it.
An example there is we’ve worked with an organization that started a corporate TEDx program. And they were they went from 60 people on a bar after work, and it became one of the most successful TEDx programs in the Fortune 500. So advice to building trust is really to have some early wins, and then to talk about what you’re learning and share that broadly. So the rest of the organization can learn from you.
Kaitlin Milliken: You mentioned some of those early steps that you can get to build a more innovative culture. What about the folks who are starting a new lab or a new innovation center? Do you have any tips for people who are starting that specific type of project or initiative?
Natalie Painchaud: So step one, really start with the objectives that are laid out in the strategy, start with a company’s purpose. Ultimately, just be clear what you’re working towards, and always have that front and center. What is the question you’re seeking to answer?
The second, and this is where we spend a lot of our time, is develop a common language. So that, again, you know what you’re working towards. When we say disruptive versus sustaining innovation in the organization, does everyone have a clear understanding of what that means? And is it written down somewhere?
And then the third thing is really working on demonstration projects. So making it real. The quicker that you can get to a prototype that you cannot just be talking about activities and progress against those activities — what we in consulting, call the busy bee slide — the more that you can be sharing kind of prototypes or borrowing from the field of acting what they call a stumble through, so that you’re saying, you know, here’s the vision, here’s the idea we’ve got. And when something isn’t fully baked, it takes a lot of courage to do that. But we find it just so much more impactful to react to an idea than it is to share, you know, updates on progress.
The fourth thing is ensuring that you’ve got the right systems and tools in place. So really being thoughtful about the systems of tools, the right types of questions, and that you’ve got the right support and systems and resources.
Kaitlin Milliken: Getting support is really important. You mentioned a little bit earlier that support from the top is huge. Who else do you need to have on board when starting an innovation program?
Natalie Painchaud: The new behaviors really needs to be practiced by everyone. And it is incredibly important, as I mentioned earlier that their role modeled by the leaders who are visible. In terms of support, I just wanted to share another quote from a leader that I have had the privilege to work with on an innovation program. And something he says always is “You take the risk. I take the blame.” And I just think that beautifully sums up the level of psychological safety that’s needed in an organization to take those risks and to do something differently.
Kaitlin Milliken: Where should organizations look to find the right talent for these new initiatives? Is it an internal, external, or some combination of the two?
Natalie Painchaud: Teams should actually be built by a combination of both internal and external. So internal talent knows the context and they can make connections across the organization. And these aren’t necessarily what we call the name leaders, but what we see as these are oftentimes that people with less formal authority, but who are really motivated to act. So how do you find those unnamed leaders? And how do you as an organization really unleash this untapped innovation talent?
And then this talent needs to be combined with external people. So whether the people you’re collaborating with or people that you’re hiring from the outside, but really people who are focused on the external environment, the big shifts that are taking place, including new technologies that might be shaping the future.
Kaitlin Milliken: And this is my final question for you. What is the most important thing a new innovation team should do to set their program up for success?
Natalie Painchaud: As a team, get clear on what are the behaviors that you want to see repeated within your organization. So thinking about things like collaboration or experimentation. What will you do to ensure that you’re living into those behaviors, and really break that addiction to business as usual? What are some things that you as a team can put into place to promote living into this new behavior through maybe indirect suggestions or reinforcement? And I know we’re talking about innovation teams, I think it’s important to do this within the team. But what’s nice about this is everyone in an organization can do this. One of the things that we’ve seen can be a trap is when you keep the innovation team very separate, rather than having frequent touch points and connecting back with the broader organization.
Kaitlin Milliken: Figure out the innovative behaviors you want to see in your team, then develop activities and programs to encourage change. With the right support and staff, your organization can break away from business as usual.
You’ve been listening to Innovation Answered. This episode was written and produced by me, Kaitlin Milliken. Special thanks to Danielle, Chef Price, and Natalie for sharing their insights. To join the Innovation Leader communitY sign up for a membership on our website. You can also listen to every episode of our show at innovationleader.com/podcast. If you love this episode, rate and review us on your streaming platform of choice that helps other innovators find the show. Thanks for listening and see you next time.
Special thanks to Innosight for sponsoring this podcast. Disruptive change is accelerating and companies today face more ambiguity than ever before. But with ambiguity comes opportunity. Innosight, the strategy and innovation practice at Heron Consulting Group, is the leading expert on disruptive innovation and dual transformation. Co-founded by Harvard Business School’s Professor Clayton Christensen, their team helps Global 2000 companies strengthen today’s business, while creating the new growth engines of tomorrow. Their approach to strategy and innovation consulting is collaborative. Clients say that Innosight has changed the way they think about and see the world, enabling them to do things they could never do before. Learn more at innosight.com.