Inspiring innovation

People love milkshakes.

But with all of the supplies and the mess, they can be a pain to make.

Jim Farrell contemplated that problem for decades, and the solution became starting f’real foods LLC to provide products to make milkshake-lovers’ lives easier.

But the innovation hasn’t stopped. Farrell has built the company into a $38.8 million milkshake-product supplier by encouraging his employees to embrace his philosophy of “There’s got to be another way.”

“(Broaden) the question beyond just simply making your product better,” Farrell says. “It’s also, ‘Just how do you make your company run better?’ That really gets everybody into the mix of, ‘How do I make what I’m doing better than it was yesterday?’”

When people think innovation, they think creativity, but they forget optimism and tenacity, Farrell says.

“As you’re trying to lead your company to get innovation going and establish it as part of what you do, you have to create that optimistic environment,” says the CEO.

Smart Business spoke to Farrell about how to encourage employees to innovate.

Lead by example. It really does start at the top with both communicating clearly that part of what you’re trying to do as a company: ‘Part of this vision is to find a better way every day.’

Always be focused on, ‘Is there a better way to do what I’m doing? Is there a way to make our product better?’ Certainly, but is there a way to make this job that I’m doing to get this part of the product built, or whatever it is you’re working on today, is there a way to do what you’re doing today better that would be quicker or more effective because it gives somebody else better information?

In everybody’s seat, in every place within the company, the thought should be, ‘Is there a better way?’ Or said another way, ‘There’s got to be a better way.’ I always frame it even having a more positive side.

Communicating clearly that we look for innovation in everything we do is important. I definitely do that, and I always have. Now it’s not just about me saying that; it’s what everybody says.

Do not fear change. Innovation means change by its very nature.

Most people aren’t big fans of change. They kind of like to know how things are going to go. They like a certain consistency to their day that they can count on.

There is perceived to be risk in change — oftentimes there is risk in change.

How do you overcome that is one of the keys, because if you’re going to innovate, you are going to be changing, and if people don’t want to change, they’re not going to want to innovate. To overcome that, we do some things repeatedly so that people understand we really do want to innovate and be innovative.

We periodically do what we call celebrate failure. What that means is when somebody has the guts to go ahead and try and change something, and if it doesn’t go quite as planned and something doesn’t work out and it doesn’t work, we are very conscious about not giving somebody demerits or a hard time for that. We congratulate them on trying something different.

Literally, at times, celebrate failure. It’s like, ‘Hey, good job trying something new. Yeah, it didn’t work out, but you tried.’

Typically, it’s not like, ‘Let’s have a big party to celebrate.’ It’s a simple acknowledgement, oftentimes from me, so from the highest level, of someone saying, ‘Hey, this may look like a failure, but, you know, it’s not. It was a real effort to improve the situation.’

When you do that a few times, people start to realize there is safety as opposed to risk in trying something new. They become more confident that they can try something new, and they start to realize that there’s even good being expressed by the company about trying something new, so you’re really encouraged.

It’s one thing to celebrate success. But the more impactful thing is when you celebrate failure, because when other people see that person’s initiative lead to something that didn’t work out, when people see that’s OK, that makes them much more confident that it’s OK to try stuff even if they’re not quite positive it’s going to work out.

That’s really important, taking the risk part out.