Member Spotlight: Michael McCathren, Chick-fil-A

By Kate Katz |  August 15, 2022

Michael McCathren began working in the restaurant business at 15 years old, riding his bike back and forth to K-BOB’S Steakhouse in Abilene, Texas. Now, after 30 years of restaurant experience in Operations, Supply Chain, Finance and Marketing under his belt, McCathren leads Enterprise Innovation in the Innovation & New Ventures group as Senior Principal, Enterprise Innovation at Chick-fil-A.

Michael McCathren, Senior Principal Enterprise Innovation, Chick-fil-A

Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A, Inc. is ranked the fourth biggest restaurant chain in the country with more than 2,700 restaurants in 47 states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and Canada. The privately-held company’s decentralized innovation model means that innovation is embedded into everything, from restaurant design to customer experience (Chick-fil-A is currently partnering with Refraction AI to test autonomous delivery in Austin, Texas). Much of this problem-solving happens at Chick-fil-A’s Hatch Innovation Center under the purview of the Innovation & New Ventures team.

We spoke with McCathren, author of the new book, The 6 Ps of Essential Innovation, as part of the IL Member Spotlight series.

What are your main responsibilities at Chick-fil-A?

My team and I are like an in-house consulting firm. It is our job to help project teams and departments and strategic team leads get through the innovation process as fast and efficiently as possible. That work falls into four buckets:

Consulting: We all have a proclivity for action, [but] sometimes, it’s good to step back and say, ‘Well, hang on, let’s make sure the team is ready… And then let’s get into the first stage of the innovation process.’ And then coaching them through that, giving them tools and methods to help them with that, is part of what we do.

Facilitation: A lot of times that consulting and coaching turns into, ‘Hey, can you help us do this?’ So we’ll facilitate all kinds of different sessions with groups.

Education: Our team is sort of the curator of the culture of innovation at Chick-fil-A. So our education is not just for education sake, it is to create a culture and to continually nurture and strengthen that culture.

Simulation: Hatch [is a] 32,000 square foot warehouse that is [partially] experiential and immersive as we try to inform and inspire staff, part of it is used for the other teams within the innovation and new ventures umbrella… and the rest of it is used for cross functional work project teams. And most of that space is used to create prototypes that we can run simulations through.

Can you share advice about making sure innovation activities are within the company’s ethos?

From my experience, it begins with an executive who believes that in order to have the capabilities to do innovation, you have to grow the culture that is willing to accept it. And it’s a lot like gardening. If you throw seeds of innovation capabilities on dry ground, they’re not going to take root… the culture is like, ‘Hey, we don’t even know how to apply this. I haven’t been trained, I don’t have enough time. I don’t get reoccurring training.’ The environment’s not conducive for new ideas.

If you throw seeds of innovation capabilities on dry ground, they’re not going to take root.

It doesn’t necessarily take an innovation capability visionary; it takes more of a visionary for creating the right culture. Then, when that culture is ready, it’ll be hungry for the capabilities and to learn and to be trained on how to apply the skills and methods and tools, and they’ll be rewarded for experimentation.

What have you learned from teaching others about innovation? 

I’ve learned that once you’ve seen one innovation process, you’ve seen one innovation process because every organization applies it a little bit differently. And that’s the beautiful thing about it because design thinking has some foundational frameworks that will remain true across industries. But how those get applied specifically to an organization can be really fascinating.

I think that we have to be open to understanding how innovation processes — in language and beliefs and behaviors and the culture piece of it — need to mesh seamlessly and easily into the existing cultural frameworks and into the systems of how you do work in the first place. So we don’t want to just jump with both feet into the river, we kind of just want to wade into it — not disturb the current.

What do you like doing when you’re not at work?

So, my wife and I, a couple of years ago, [we got] hooked on camping. And we have just a little tiny camper that we can run away into the woods with and we love it. It is therapeutic just to sit and watch the sun come up, or or go down and hear nature all around you and have a campfire. And it’s just so funny, because we will be married 35 years this year. We never dreamt we would [be] the kind of people that will just go camping. So we surprised ourselves and we love it.