On your marks, get set, innovate!

One bright spot for my husband and me this spring has been our discovery of The Great British Baking Show on Netflix. Yes, I realize it has been around for 10 seasons and isn’t as trendy as Tiger King, but it’s the virtual warm hug that we need these days. Plus, it has a lot of lessons for innovators. Here’s my list of what I’ve noticed so far. (There are no spoilers here, don’t worry–mostly because we have only seen two seasons and I’m terrible with names.)

  • Take risks. While the show offers lots of surprises, one thing we have found to be consistent is that people who play it safe don’t last very long. The point of the competition–whether in the Baking Show’s tent or with customers anywhere–is to show that you’re better than what people have had before. Sticking with status quo ideas means you need to execute it astoundingly well, or you’ll be sent home. Even if not every risky idea pans out (no pun intended), people will admire your effort.
  • Know your customers. Successful bakers (and entrepreneurs) know that they can’t eat all the biscuits themselves. They need customers. And customers have preferences. If a contestant says, “I know the judges don’t like [flavor] but I do, so I’m going to make it anyway,” that’s usually a bad sign. Just like in the real world, if your plan is to force customers to begrudgingly warm to your idea, you won’t last long.
  • Practice. While the contestants are baking, the judges will circulate the room and ask what they are working on. The next question is often, “How many times have you practiced this?” Wrong answer: “This is my first time!” Better answer: “I tried it once and it worked!” Best answer: “About a dozen variations.” Why? As with all new ideas, your first version probably isn’t the best (or even good). You need to challenge your assumptions and be willing to fail a few times so you can use evidence to conclude what is actually best. 
  • Keep calm and have fun! As the weeks progress and the stress builds, it’s the people who clearly enjoy baking who rise to the occasion (again, no pun, but teehee). They remind themselves (and viewers) of their “why”–they are there because they love being creative, baking, and making things for others. Innovators are also served by this frame of mind.
  • Help each other. While people compete on this show as individuals, camaraderie develops quickly. It’s common to see other contestants (and even the hosts) lend an extra hand to get a cake out of a tin, high-five a success, or console when something flops. While a zero-sum, cutthroat atmosphere might have made for more dramatic TV, the collaborative environment is better for creativity. Likewise, teams perform better if they have psychological safety–members can take risks and ask for help without worrying that someone will later punish them for it. 
  • Diverse experiences. The contestants come from all walks of life and every corner of the United Kingdom–diverse ethnic backgrounds, ages, and professions. This leads to some extraordinarily creative ideas. But if you look carefully, bakers who bring a breadth of experiences often do better than those who have a narrow speciality. For example, many of the assignments are obscure foreign bakes, from a Kouign-amann (France) to a Kek-lapis (Indonesia), which favor people with previous exposure to different flavors and baking techniques. Likewise, successful entrepreneurs combine ideas, techniques, and solutions from a wide range of sources. For example, the person who first designed roll-on deodorant was inspired by the functionality of a ball-point pen. Who knows, maybe your next bag of flour will provide the missing ingredient for a tough problem you’re trying to solve. 
  • Surprise and delight. This isn’t a blind taste test. Even if the bake has a great flavor, it has to look appetizing and–better yet–go beyond the customers’ expectations. Successful contestants make an effort to provide an enjoyable user experience, whether that’s by shaping a loaf of bread into a peacock, hiding a chocolate squirrel inside a cake, or arranging cookies on a home-made step ladder. Likewise, entrepreneurs should always think about how to turn their customers’ experience from a good one to a showstopper.
Notice the subliminal message? ❤
  • Minimal viable product. While the show’s contestants are supposed to produce complete and fully-decorated masterpieces, sometimes that just isn’t possible. Things go wrong–dough flops, ice cream melts, chocolate burns, etc. The baker has a choice: toss it all in the trash and give up, or move forward with as much as they can. For them–and for all of us–the latter option is always preferable. Presenting even a fraction of the original idea is still an opportunity for feedback. This practice holds for entrepreneurs: put your idea–even if half-baked (ha!)–in front of customers so you can learn from them. Don’t keep them hungry while you’re trying to perfect things in the back room. 
  • Always be learning. Do you see feedback as punishment for your mistakes, or an opportunity to grow? It’s interesting to watch the contestants’ attitudes in this regard. Some people come on the show feeling very confident in their baking abilities (likely buoyed by well-fed family members) and then crumble when held to a higher standard. If their reaction is, “I guess I’m not good enough,” then they don’t last long. But those who say, “I’m going to practice more and prove that I belong here,” have not only a winning attitude, but also an admirable penchant for baking puns. As entrepreneurs, we need to stay humble, stay hungry, and constantly push ourselves harder.
  • Innovation over invention. A big misconception about the world of entrepreneurship is that we need to come up with completely original ideas. iPhone or bust! This can be paralyzing. It’s also not true. As innovators–or star bakers–we are successful if we create something new that gets used (or eaten). This could mean designing a better process to board an airplane, or baking cupcakes inspired by cocktails. Innovators can’t be deterred by seeing a flavor of their idea in another context; it doesn’t mean it’s impossible to add value. Case in point, after I had sketched out the ideas in this blog post, I checked to see if the topic had already been covered. Sure enough, it had…but with a completely different perspective. 

So go wash your hands, open your cupboards, and get to work!

Uneven in presentation, but 100% delicious
A very British (and millennial) pivot

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