What Ramen Noodles Can Teach You About Digital Innovation

In developing a digital strategy, the balance between innovation and quality is at risk of being totally out of whack.

ramen4
Credit: Tasty Island Hawaii

I'm a hopeless foodie, and I live a not-so-secret life as an executive chef and restaurant owner deep in my own little fantasy world. I've always looked for connections between my career as a global branding and technology researcher and my love for feeding people great food. It's admittedly been a stretch.

The two came together today as I read an article about the ramen craze by Dave Chang, founder of the world famous Momofuku restaurant group. In the article, Chang rants about how other than having noodles as an ingredient, ramen has become unrecognizable when compared to its origin in Japanese cuisine.

So here's the part where my food and technology innovation lives collide.

Chang concludes, "in general, the balance between innovation and quality is totally out of whack."

It struck me like a bag of bricks just how closely we almost always associate innovation with quality. There are two aspects to this illusion, the first being that first-in innovation provides the advantage of not having a competitor for quality comparisons. So by definition it's best because it's the only one. The second is that we are programmed to believe that we need innovation to make technology better.

It would be insane to even imply that innovation is a bad thing, but it does raise the question of how much innovation is simply "eye candy" and how much truly has utility.

Nowhere is this more evident than in apps innovation.

Enterprises CIOs and CMOs see apps as a critical check-off item in their digital innovation strategy. You simply can't be a digital leader without a customer facing app. But how many of the apps you download inspire engagement loyalty because they provide some real form of utility or increase in quality of life. Think about the most innovative enterprise app you have on your mobile device … one that is not an "app business" like Waze, Grub Hub or Uber.

After a deeper review it becomes apparent that many enterprise apps are "innovation free zones." They are the digital equivalent of corporate brochures or directories, and in many cases they actually decrease utility because of the limitations of their interfaces. Using the food metaphor, they feel that putting ramen into an omelet is innovation, despite the fact that the quality of this dish is nonexistent.

The key to balancing quality and innovation is based on a simple principle raised in my previous blogs: High quality innovation occurs at the furthest peripheries of your enterprise ecosystem.

If the customer is not directly involved in the customer-facing apps innovation process, and your development team's view of the market is through an office window, the result could be a new ramen dish that only the chef thinks is delicious.

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