4 ways pet food companies can foster innovation

Speaking at Petfood Essentials, former Google executive Steve Lerch explains the four principles companies must follow to encourage employees to voice their ideas.

Steve Lerch speaks at Petfood Essentials 2022 in Kansas City, Missouri, USA.
Steve Lerch speaks at Petfood Essentials 2022 in Kansas City, Missouri, USA.
Debbie Phillips-Donaldson

If you were at a pet food conference in 1956 – the year the first dog food kibble was produced through extrusion – and someone described a smart phone to you and asked if you ever thought something like that was possible, what do you think you’d say?

That was the question posed by Steve Lerch, consultant and former Google executive, who spoke about innovation and new ideas May 2 at the opening session of Petfood Essentials, part of Petfood Forum in Kansas City, Missouri, USA.

“Just 60 years ago, no one would even believe in the possibility of something as ubiquitous today as a smart phone app,” he said.

And, innovation doesn’t have to be monumental; it can be smaller things too.

“It can be the way we build our products, the way we work as teams, the way we send emails, the way we talk to each other,” he said. “We often don’t know that there’s a better way to do it. We don’t know that that next thing is possible until we discover it. Innovation allows us to come up with things we didn’t know we needed to come up with.”

From his decade working at Google, Lerch said he learned four principles companies must follow to foster innovation.

1. Innovation comes from anywhere

By establishing a culture of innovation, company leaders can learn of great ideas from any employee at any level, but they must encourage employees to come forward with their ideas.

“Do you think that junior employee would feel confident enough and comfortable enough bringing that idea to leadership? Bringing that idea to all of you?” Lerch asked attendees. “Most of the time, the answer to that question is no. And if the answer to that question is no, you have no idea what you might be missing out on. As leaders, we have to set a culture of innovation. We have to let people know that this is what we want – that we are open to them.”

2. Launch, learn and improve

There are two parts to this concept: The first is that every innovation is just the first version; there will always be room for improvement. The second is that practice plus feedback makes perfect.

“The first is this concept of essentially embracing the idea that, no matter what you do … you have to assume it’s Version 1. You should always assume, no matter how great the thing is you do, that it’s Version 1. There’s going to have to be a Version 2, and a Version 3, and a Version 4. We can challenge ourselves to think of our business and say, what are the things we’re doing that are still on Version 1? What are the things in our business that we thought we figured out, it was good enough, and now we just do it that way forever?”

In paraphrasing life coach Tony Robbins, Lerch said practice doesn’t make perfect; it makes consistent. It’s applying feedback to your practice that brings improvement.

“That limit expands fast in a major way when you get other people involved, other sources of information involved, when you get feedback from customers, from your employees, from your peers, from your family, from your friends. You open up to ideas,” he said. “Innovation comes from anywhere when you’re willing to take your product, take your ideas, get it into other people’s hands, learn from what they tell you and then make it better.”

3. “10x thinking”

Taking a goal and multiplying it by 10 is what Lerch described as “10x thinking.”

“When you set a marginal goal – a 10% goal – once you achieve it, once you once you come up with a solution for it, you tend to stop,” Lerch said.

But by applying 10x thinking, goals become bigger. And, he said, by adding more input – “human capital” – those bigger goals can be achieved.

4. 20% projects

Allowing employees to have free time for 20% of their week, or one day per week, to pursue their passions – regardless of whether they are work related – achieves two goals, Lerch said.

“The first is probably obvious: When you’re giving people a chance to work on what they want to work on, when you let people self-identify their passions and their motivations, of course, they’re going to come to work more motivated, more excited and work harder and bring more of themselves to the job,” he said. “But the second part of it is just as important, and it’s about collaboration.”

When employees who otherwise would not work together start collaborating, they are gaining new insights and strategies, and discovering new tools and resources.

“Collaboration is so crucial. Find new ways for your employees to come together, for your teams to work together with people they might not meet otherwise,” Lerch said.
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