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How HR can change company culture to drive innovation within the food industry

human resources and innovation
Today’s food industry needs to evolve beyond old leadership structures and dated hiring tactics to move forward in a way that supports innovation.

Historically speaking, innovation in the food industry can be slow. Change happens slowly as the big food ships steer cautiously toward new product offerings, a timeline that can sometimes stretch to two or three years. COVID necessitated quicker innovation to keep pace with rapidly evolving consumer needs and habits. Still, without structures in place to continue fostering an atmosphere of agile innovation, the timeline could easily stretch back to a pre-COVID length, especially at larger companies.

But with consumers expecting more creativity, new ingredient options, and greater diversity of products, slow innovation simply isn’t an option. Moving forward, how can food companies continue to drive rapid innovation? One could argue that the power for change lies with human resources (HR) and the broader leadership structure, and innovation will follow if companies can break from tradition to make room for new talent and collaborative environments.

A closer look at the problem

Why is innovation so slow in the food industry? For one, major food companies are risk-averse, often only innovating new products as a last resort. Large companies typically leave that risk to small food startups, later acquiring businesses that already have proof of concept. However, the majority of research indicates that most M&A deals are basically a coin toss.

Secondly, the food industry still prefers a traditional direction-setting leadership, where senior management creates the vision, and their teams follow their command. Unfortunately, this type of structure can anchor an organization in the past and slow development as it creates bottlenecks, decreases productivity, and ultimately kills innovation.

The third problem area is that small to medium-sized food manufacturers typically prioritize hiring candidates with food industry experience, a degree, and prior experience in a specific role. This means that companies miss out on hiring the great talent needed to build a diverse team—something that is essential for developing innovative products and services.

Collaboration and innovation

To make way for new spaces that spur collaboration and innovation, HR professionals in the food industry need to break the traditional leadership format. This means leaders should set the stage and not perform on it, HR should hire “rebel talent” and management should foster psychological safety to create an environment that supports innovation.

Linda Hill, the Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and author of “Collective Genius” argues that the role of senior management should be to set the stage rather than perform on it. The typical style of leadership in the food industry has been to perform on stage, and most leaders have never actually set the stage for others. In other words, they need to shape a context in which their teams are willing and able to do the creating. Since senior managers are typically used to being the visionaries who inspire others, this calls for a new way to lead that may feel more like standing on the sideline. It’s about believing that ordinary people can do extraordinary things, and the role of the leader is to help unleash that slice of genius from their team members.

Another suggestion comes from Francesca Gino, the Tandon Family Professor of Business Administration and unit head of the Negotiation, Organizations and Markets unit at Harvard Business School. In her book “Rebel Talent,” Gino embraces the talent of rule-breakers and rebels. She argues these are the kind of people you want to hire to help your company innovate. Leaders also should encourage their existing teams to break the rules and old habits to discover the rebel talents already within their organization. These rebels believe in breaking the rules and old habits so they can discover new skills, transform, and create something new.

Companies may need to think about hiring outside of the food industry. When a hiring manager integrates team members from other sectors, the entire team gains insight into new strategies and ideas. This could be a simple software solution that wasn’t on the radar because no one in the industry had used it before, or it might be using the scrum framework from friends in tech and adapting it to new product development process to stay agile and competitive.

I’ve seen the success of this firsthand when my previous company was approached by a large chain restaurant with the opportunity to create a new product for distribution at 1,500 restaurants. The challenge was to produce the product in 60 days, whereas our team’s commercialization cycle time was 180 days. The only way we were able to successfully commercialize and deliver the products in the timeframe required was by applying scrum to our process. It was a huge success, and we would not have accomplished this without being open to using new ways of working.

Creating a comfortable workplace

To develop a space for rebel talents to perform on stage, it’s essential for leaders to create psychological safety in the workplace. This allows teams to feel comfortable enough to break the rules and create something new. As argued by Simon Sinek, author of “Start With Why and The Infinite Game,” “if you get the environment right, every single one of us has the capacity to do these remarkable things, and more importantly, others have that capacity too.”

Leaders must create a deep sense of trust within their organization so that their teams feel they have the safety needed to think creatively and courageously enough to spark groundbreaking ideas. There are a few ways Cadence Kitchen accomplishes this. First, it encourages the senior leadership team to stay humble and speak up in group setting when they make wrong decisions or encounter challenges. This allows the rest of the team to lean in and help each other produce solutions. It also sends a clear message that the team’s objective is to improve the organization, rather than focus on individual or department performance. Secondly, it incorporates humor to foster a comfortable and casual environment where the team feels confident in speaking up and sharing their ideas. Third, the company encourages a culture of curiosity and learning through its Continuous Improvement committee meetings where senior leadership team identifies and tracks the organization’s challenges and opportunities from all departments as a committee and tackles them together. These meetings enable the leadership team to see failures as learning experiences and opportunities to improve as an organization.

Industry at turning point

Today’s food industry needs to evolve beyond old leadership structures and dated hiring tactics to move forward in a way that supports innovation. Without this, there’s a real risk for food industry giants to become obsolete as young spark food companies capture the greater share of interest with their creative ideas and innovative product offerings. If change begins with HR, the entire fabric of the organization can shift to become one with the level of adaptability, creativity and innovation needed to propel it into the future.

Ibeth Echepetelecu is chief human resources officer at Cadence Kitchen, where she leads the search for honest, driven people to join in creating a more delicious and sustainable way to enjoy home-cooked meals. In her career, Echepetelecu has repeatedly played a key role in driving company growth and has established three effective HR departments from the ground up. She is a senior professional in human resources (SHRM-SCP), a certified senior professional in human resources (SPHR), a certified crisis counselor, and a yellow belt Six Sigma.

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