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Keep your innovation team small, no more than 10 people, and fewer is even better.

When Rachel Antalek, chief innovation strategist, Antalek Strategic Innovation Partners, Seattle, began her career in the restaurant industry, companies focused their innovation practices primarily on new product development and not much else. Nearly 25 years later, innovation teams often are an integral part of a company’s R&D function. They help develop ideas that increase a restaurant’s offerings, enhance customer experience, improve processes and create relevance in a fast-changing business environment.

Antalek, an innovation pioneer at such companies as Starbucks and Olive Garden, today advises others on innovation. She recently shared her thoughts on building an effective innovation team.

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Innovation expert Rachel Antalek will present at the National Restaurant Association’s Restaurant Innovation Summit, Nov. 5-6, in Cleveland.

Why is assembling an innovation team important?

Innovation teams need to explore several things: the company’s products, technology, service, business model, and even some of the industry disruptors affecting how it operates. They have to think about how a company can deliver great customer and employee experiences, especially in the labor market we’re in now. If a restaurant company can’t deliver great employee experiences, there’s no way it will deliver great customer experiences. To that end, innovation teams must look at and define where and how the business model needs to change and what those changes might be. 

What does an effective innovation team look like?

What I’ve seen work best is a team composed of people who understand the industry. Maybe they spent some time growing up and working in it in the past. They need to be naturally curious and can problem-solve. They should have functional expertise and a mindset for growth, flexibility and discipline. 

Where should these people come from?

I would recommend that you assemble a multifaceted team, one that is more than the sum of its parts. But keep it lean and nimble, anywhere from four to 10 people, and no more. Your innovations are only as good as your ability to identify the right problems and solve the pain points that affect your company and your customers. I also believe that a team with diverse experience and perspectives will lead to the creation of diverse solutions. 

Can you cite an example from your own experience?

The team I set up at Starbucks focused on the total store experience, but it also was conscious of the structural underpinnings needed to put the innovation in place; their solutions had to be feasible. I brought in engineers, people who had digital prototyping capabilities, marketing folks, operations people and even a finance person, who helped us to size up opportunities and ensure they were financially viable. 

What are three pieces of advice for building an innovation team?

  • Be clear about your company’s definition of innovation and the role it’s going to play in the company’s growth strategy.
  • Get the right talent in place.
  • Last, but not least, remember that what you choose NOT to work on is as important as what you DO work on. Recently, a client chose NOT to put resources toward developing proprietary equipment that could have been quite disruptive. Instead, we decided to focus on the service experience, which we believed was more important. 

The point is, there’s never a shortage of ideas. The challenge is in prioritizing the right ones. 

Rachel Antalek will speaking at our Restaurant Innovation Summit, Nov. 5-6 in Cleveland, about how to put your employees at the heart of your innovation efforts. Register now! Our hotel room block expires Oct. 14.