A couple of weeks ago, I participated in a meeting on innovation with a number of executives from various companies that we hosted at IBM. We spent the day presenting different aspects of our innovation programs, and had a very open dialogue on what we are doing, how we manage the programs and what lessons we have learned so far.
One of the questions I was asked during my own presentation is how we select areas to focus on for innovation in IBM. I told them that we wanted everyone in IBM to bring an open mind to whatever it is they do in their job and to look for ways to do them better. Convincing people that innovation applies to everything, not just to R&D projects in our labs, is perhaps our biggest challenge and one of the major cultural barriers we need to overcome.
Of course, maintaining an open mind is easier said than done -- whether at work, on societal issues or in our personal lives. Three years ago I gave the spring commencement address at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) and chose as the theme for my talk the increasing importance of having an open mind in a fast-changing world. I wanted to bring my comments to life through the example of someone I really admired for having an open mind and for having used her open mind to change some aspect of the world. I also, frankly, wanted to come across as having an open mind myself (or, at least, not a boring one) by not talking about the usual kind of person someone like me (male, gray hair, IBM executive, etc) would be expected to select.
So, I chose to illustrate what I meant by an open mind by talking to the UTEP commencement audience on Saturday, May 11, 2002 about one of my personal heroes . . . Julia Child. I was reminded of that speech by a recent tribute to her on Public TV -- of which there have been quite a few since her death last year.
My own lifelong relationship with Julia Child started while I was a student at the University of Chicago in the 1960s. I was living in an off-campus apartment with three roommates. We alternated the cooking duties, and somehow, we found ourselves trying to outdo each other in the meals we cooked. It became a competitive sport. Around the same time, Julia Child was becoming famous with her first cookbook "Mastering the Art of French Cooking", and with her weekly programs on PBS, The French Chef. Julia introduced a whole generation of Americans to good cooking, and did so by demystifying and democratizing what it meant to prepare good food, and convincing us through her own genuine enjoyment that good cooking was one of the coolest things you could do. My roommates and I were smitten. We studied Julia's cookbooks and watched her TV programs like generals poring over The Art of War on the way to battle.
The thing is, she had a real and lasting impact. Julia Child changed American cooking habits. To appreciate how much, one has to remember what cooking was like at the time. I know I am generalizing, but in the 1960s, "good" cooking meant primarily French food prepared by classically trained chefs (almost exclusively male, needless to say) like Auguste Escoffier, with Larousse Gastronomique as the revered encyclopedia of food. Below these levels of good cooking was a huge gap. With few exceptions, (e.g., ethnic food) every day food in restaurants and home left much to be desired.
Julia Child's main innovation was to see that all cooking could rise to a superior level, not just classic French food. She had great respect for the fundamentals of classic French cooking and a profound knowledge of them. But she also had a very open mind, and to her the lessons of the great chefs could be adapted to everything and for everyone.
In her many cook books and continuing TV series she showed the world how to cook and enjoy just about any kind of food. For over twenty years, for example, I have been making our family's Thanksgiving turkey and gravy from her recipes in "From Julia Child's Kitchen" (pp 232-239). And, when I needed inspiration for making truly creative pizzas with my children, I consulted Julia's pizza recipes.
In 2005, you can find good, well prepared food just about anywhere in America, and there is a tremendous amount of energy and creativity around cooking of all kinds. Many factors have contributed to this change, but I really believe that one of the main ones is the open mind that pioneers like Julia Child brought to the kitchen.
The lesson for us all is that there is probably no more powerful agent for innovation -- in any field -- than an open mind.