What can innovators learn from the great French chefs? The secret is in the sauce! Learn why a mastery of the basics is the foundation of successful new creations.
My family and I recently vacationed in France. While there, I had the opportunity to sample numerous culinary delights, from gourmet extravaganzas to casual take-out fare. As a self-confessed foodie and an amateur chef, I also took advantage of the chance to learn as much as I could about French cooking -- including taking two cooking classes.
One of the lessons focused on the “mother sauces.” For those of you who are unfamiliar with the French culinary arts, the term refers to the five basic sauces that form the foundation of French cuisine and serve as the starting points for a wide variety of secondary sauces. I’ll spare you the descriptions of each (although you can find them here), but the mother sauces are: Béchamel, Velouté, Espagnole, Tomat, and Hollandaise.
While mastering a basic roux, which distinguishes good cooks from dilettantes, I had an “Aha!” moment – but not about my cooking. It occurred to me that a lot of businesses are focusing on the wrong differentiators.
The Limits of a Secret Sauce
Numerous companies refer to their “secret sauce.” In fact, I’ve done it myself.
The term originated with actual recipes such as the “11 herbs and spices” used to make Kentucky Fried Chicken, one of the most famous trade secrets in the food industry. And perhaps the biggest trade secret of all is the recipe for Coca-Cola, which is still kept in a vault in Atlanta.
Today, businesses from a wide variety of industries use the term “secret sauce” as a metaphor for their competitive advantage. But a secret sauce is not enough to ensure long-term success.
First, tastes and trends change. Kentucky Fried Chicken rebranded itself as KFC in the early 1990s, as fried food became taboo among increasingly health-conscious Americans. And Coca-Cola responded to competitive threats in the 1980s by introducing New Coke, disparaging their own recipe in the process, only to return to it when New Coke failed spectacularly. Second, relying on a secret sauce is limiting at a time when most companies need to do more than one thing well.
I believe companies need to think more about their “mother sauces.”
Mastering the Mother Sauces
Culinary students are expected to learn the mother sauces by heart, and chefs spend years mastering them. Each can make or break a dish. But once you have perfected the recipes, you can vary them. For example, replace the lemon juice in a Hollandaise with vinegar, add shallots and tarragon and you have Béarnaise sauce.
As I diligently whisked flour into my clarified butter in my quest for culinary greatness, I started thinking of my company’s core capabilities as mother sauces. At Corning, we believe we are the best in the world at three core technologies (glass science, ceramic science, and optical physics) and four manufacturing and engineering platforms (precision forming, vapor deposition, fusion, and extrusion). Other companies may have one or two of these capabilities, but we’ve set the bar extremely high. For example, our vapor deposition process makes optical fiber so pure that if it replaced the water in the ocean, you could see the bottom clearly from any point on the surface.
These capabilities are at the core of numerous Corning innovations. But like the mother sauces, they are also the foundation for other capabilities. By combining them or adding new ingredients, we are able to create entirely new innovations that competitors can’t touch. For example, by leveraging our expertise in glass science, ceramic science, and optical physics, along with our experience in vapor deposition, extrusion, and precision forming, we have continually increased the performance, lowered the cost, and improved the installation of optical networks – while capturing a disproportionate share of the profits versus our competitors. You could say that our ability to capture synergies among our core capabilities is Corning’s “secret sauce.”
Kitchen Wisdom for Innovators
Now, I didn’t wax poetic about sauce-making just to tout my own company. I think there are valuable lessons here for innovators in general.
• Focus on your capabilities as a differentiator, not just your products
As innovators, we strive to delight our customers and provide unique solutions to their needs. But customer needs change, and products become obsolete. But if you understand the core capabilities at the heart of your products, you are more likely to evolve with your customers and recognize new market opportunities where you have a strong value proposition.
• Become masters of your craft
Even if you’re working from the same recipe, a weekend cook is not going to produce the same result as a master chef. That’s because the chef has made the recipe hundreds if not thousands of times and has taken the time to understand how variables such as temperature, technique, and the quality of ingredients affect the outcome. When you are a true master of your craft, you can ensure high-quality, consistent results. But you can also identify areas for improvement and opportunities for variations.
• Invite other chefs to the table
Here’s where I’ll diverge slightly from my culinary metaphor. We’ve all heard the phrase, “Too many cooks spoil the broth.” The opposite is true for the early stages of innovation. You want to bring different perspectives, skills, and techniques into the mix, because that’s where you’ll get the ideas for successful extensions and entirely new recipes – not to mention eliminating failures early in the process.
Baking is not my forte, so I’ll often consult one of my chemist friends when I’m trying to decide between recipes I’ve found online. Without making the recipes themselves, they can generally tell me how they will perform differently if one uses butter versus shortening, for example, or if you use a manual pastry blender versus a food processor. Similarly, Corning’s glass scientists know how a particular element will impact a glass composition without even mixing a batch; and our engineers know what kinds of compositions can be extruded effectively and when a brand new material may be necessary.
Creating cross-functional teams is the best way to avoid “cooking disasters” and capture synergies that you may not even be aware of.
I hope these insights have given you some food for thought. And if you’ve learned an unexpected lesson from an unlikely source, I’d love to hear it.
Meanwhile, Bon Appétit!