Our Guest This Episode: Steve Nedvidek
Picking up where we left off with Steve Nedvidek, he continues to share the importance of innovation and change management. He dives deeper into the culture of Chick-fil-A and innovation process – Understand, Imagine, Prototype, Validate and Launch.
For more than twenty years, Steve Nedvidek has been the Innovator in Residence for Chick-fil-A. He is responsible for helping to build the innovation muscle within the organization, and his primary duties are geared toward creating a culture of and competency for innovation at Chick-fil-A. Prior to joining Chick-fil-A, Nedvidek received a Bachelor of Arts in Communication from Wingate University and a Master of Arts in Theater from Wake Forest University.
Favorite Quotes from Our Talk:
"One of the first things that I was able to do when I came over from marketing into the innovation space was ask 50 friends who worked at Chick-fil-A Corporate, some of whom I’d known for a very short period of time, some of whom I’d known for almost 25 years, is “What does innovation mean?” And no two answers were the same. So you begin to realize pretty early you don’t have common definition. You don’t have common process. And because you don’t share a common vision, how in the world can you make this thing a reality?"
"What we found, Andy, is that we needed a comfortable environment for people to learn innovation process. And for us it’s a five-step process: understand, imagine, prototype, validate, launch."
"I think one of the big things that we’ve learned in the last couple years to that very point is you’ve got to have folks around you who are really gifted in change management and being able to – it’s kind of like they have to translate. You’ve got one group that speaks one way; one group that speaks another way."
ANDY CROWE ● BILL YATES ● NICK WALKER ● STEVE NEDVIDEK
NICK WALKER: Welcome to Manage This, the podcast by project managers for project managers. This is our every-other-week roundtable to discuss what matters to you in the fast-paced and challenging field of project management. We’re here to keep you up to date, to keep you in the know, and to keep you invigorated as you face your own sets of challenges. We talk with people who are right there in the trenches with you. And it’s our hope that you’ll identify with the tasks they encounter and the rewards they achieve.
I’m your host, Nick Walker, and with me are the two guys who make it all happen, Andy Crowe and Bill Yates. And Andy, we have prevailed upon our guest from two weeks ago to join us once again to talk about innovators and how they and project managers can perhaps live together in blissful harmony.
ANDY CROWE: And you know what, I didn’t get nearly enough last time. I walked away from this with my brain churning and my mind turning over on this. So I’m excited that we get a chance to work with Steve again today.
NICK WALKER: Well, let’s remind our listeners about Steve. Steve Nedvidek is the senior manager of learning and development and innovation specialist for Chick-fil-A, Incorporated. He’s been with the company for almost 30 years as a film producer, a marketing consultant, and program manager. Now he teaches and coaches and helps staff members solve the tough business problems that arise in a competitive and challenging company. And one other thing that’s very, very cool, we think, is that Steve also is the co-creator and author of the new sci-fi graphic novel series “The Jekyll Island Chronicles,” first published in May of 2016. We all think that is very, very cool. Steve, welcome back to Manage This.
STEVE NEDVIDEK: Oh, thanks for having me back. I appreciate it. And for the listeners, this really is a round table. So I thought that was very interesting. Wow, you described this accurately. Good job, Nick.
NICK WALKER: And we’re all knights here. So you have been knighted. Now, last time you came, Steve, you gave us some examples of innovation and projects that took place over the life and growth of Chick-fil-A, from the legacy of Truitt Cathy inventing the perfect chicken sandwich, building the model, executing the model, leading to great success and an impressive market share. And as we talked about last time, Chick-fil-A went from the hunter of that wide market to the hunted, hunted by the competition. And that presented its own set of challenges.
So let’s pick it up there. Innovation has to remain at the forefront. But it seems sometimes that innovators and project managers are like oil and water. You know, innovators are too predictable. They won’t commit to schedules or budgets. So why is innovation still so important to a company the size and reputation of Chick-fil-A?
STEVE NEDVIDEK: Well, I think, Nick, when you get into the ability for a company to continue to grow, because that’s what all organizations want to do is grow, is you have to begin to ask yourself, so where is that growth going to come from? And there is certainly an amount of growth that’s going to happen as you do what you’ve always done. But you can’t always count on the future to look like the present.
And in 2007, 2008 or so, our Executive Committee decided that we needed to put more chips in the future and figure some things out as to how we were going to take new ground. Again, sales growth, and especially for Chick-fil-A, successful sales growth can cover a variety of cracks. And you have to acknowledge that there are things underneath the surface that you’re going to have to deal with, ultimately; because, for example, in 2007, 2008, Truett Cathy was still alive. And you have this moment of clarity when I guess you go, yeah, and he’s not always going to be with us. And he’s not always going to be interjecting into the conversation, “Hey, guys, let’s do my pleasure.” You know, let’s take new ground with this concept or that concept or come up with this idea or this product.
So you have a realization that we’ve got to own this better. And we all have to own this together. And so for us, it was a moment of clarity where we decided that we were going to have to create kind of a discipline of innovation so that we had a new reality where growth and where new revenue streams were going to be able to come from the enterprise that people could work on collectively. So whether or not you were an innovator or you were a project manager, you were going to have to be able to work on things together so that you could start the new, create the new, and protect the new. And that’s where we began our current trek toward turning a culture of continuous improvement to a culture that really was more innovation-centric.
NICK WALKER: And so turning that corner, obviously that was not completely painless, and maybe still isn’t.
STEVE NEDVIDEK: That’s a really nice way to put it. No, it did not – it had plenty of challenges, let’s put it that way. And part of that was just for us as an organization realizing that we didn’t even know what innovation was. One of the first things that I was able to do when I came over from marketing into the innovation space was ask 50 friends who worked at Chick-fil-A Corporate, some of whom I’d known for a very short period of time, some of whom I’d known for almost 25 years, is “What does innovation mean?” And no two answers were the same. So you begin to realize pretty early you don’t have common definition. You don’t have common process. And because you don’t share a common vision, how in the world can you make this thing a reality?
So you have to do those things. You have to figure out what’s going on with the culture. Do we have a culture of innovation? Hands down, everybody said, “No, we don’t.” Because we’re afraid to risk things. We’re afraid to break things. We don’t know how to innovate. And so those were some of the things that, early on, “We don’t have time. We don’t have margin.” So those were the things early on where we had to kind of put systems and environments in place and process in place to help people begin to feel comfortable with a reality that wasn’t their current reality, to be respectful of what was going to be coming up in the future and how we’re going to have to tackle that together.
BILL YATES: Steve and I have known each other for a number of years. And one of my favorite titles, and I may butcher this, but I think at one point his title at Chick-fil-A was Innovator in Residence.
STEVE NEDVIDEK: Yes, yes.
BILL YATES: And I used to have fun teasing him about that.
STEVE NEDVIDEK: Yeah. That was always a good – that was a good title I could start conversations with.
BILL YATES: Yeah. But it’s intriguing to think about the time period and two words that you just said. Innovation, we needed to get better at innovation. We needed to change how we innovated, and we needed a disciplined approach to that. So innovation and discipline.
STEVE NEDVIDEK: Yeah, right.
BILL YATES: And I know you took some field trips, so to speak. You went and looked at, not just within Chick-fil-A, but looking outside the industry and looking at educators, universities, and other organizations and completely different industries to learn about how do you guys innovate. Tell us about some of those experiences.
STEVE NEDVIDEK: Right. Well, there was a whole group that was going out to create an innovation center. They knew that there were innovation centers that existed. They didn’t know what they looked like. So they started to do a little field trip. So people went to Procter & Gamble, which in fact had two innovation centers at that point in time; Lucasfilm; Pixar; Hewlett-Packard; d.school; IDEO.
BILL YATES: These are so different.
STEVE NEDVIDEK: Yeah. It’s, you know, this was the group of folks who were responsible for taking an 80,000 square foot building that we had on campus and totally renovating it into a place that became an 80,000 square foot safety net, a place to do innovation, a place where we could actually try things and fail, a place where we could create, a place where we could prototype, all things that we had never done before, or at least not on the scale of the enterprise-wide side of where we were. And then I personally had a chance to go out and spend time with Stanford and IDEO and d.school and Procter & Gamble to see their systems and the processes that they were putting into place. So we were building out this 80,000 square foot environment, which we wound up calling Hatch.
BILL YATES: Why did you call it Hatch?
STEVE NEDVIDEK: Because, A, it’s I guess chicken-centric.
BILL YATES: Got it.
STEVE NEDVIDEK: And, B, it fits innovation. It was a place to hatch ideas. And so we knew that we were going to work differently there. We had to. We were encouraging people who were working in suits and ties to be able to come in and put on a pair of jeans, roll up their sleeves, and cut foam core and create new restaurants out of low-resolution material. We were encouraging people that it was okay to spill paint on the floor. And you want to get dirty. You want to get messy. You have to work fast.
So we had a bunch of new work principles that we kind of put into place for the building. It became kind of the cool place to hang out, which was fun. I mean, we’re glad to have people there. But we wanted people there working and learning. And then we began to really kind of codify, so what does innovation mean at Chick-fil-A? And how do we take some of the classic models of design thinking and twist them so that they could become a structure, a discipline of solving a problem?
And so we were able to do that with the help of some other folks in the building and other people outside of Chick-fil-A, who helped us really think through that. And it was great. And those things still exist now. In fact, Hatch, the 80,000 square foot building, is now a learning center. And we’ve opened up another Hatch, which is a prototyping center.
ANDY CROWE: Okay. So you come up – the output from Hatch is an idea? Is it a spike? Is it a new project? Is it something that gets tested? What happens?
STEVE NEDVIDEK: The answer is yes. It can be any and all of those things. What we found, Andy, is that we needed a comfortable environment for people to learn innovation process. And for us it’s a five-step process: understand, imagine, prototype, validate, launch. So understand. A problem well-defined is half-solved. When you’re an innovator, and this will ring true especially with the PMs out there, your ideas, you want to launch them immediately. Your process is imagine > launch, imagine > launch, imagine > launch. And that drives anybody crazy who’s got to scale an idea or actually settle it down so that it can work. And what we found is that many of the people who were imagine > launch DNA weren’t really going back to understand the problem they were trying to solve in the first place. You’re answering a question no one’s asking. And that’s tough.
ANDY CROWE: Well, I’m going to argue, too, that a lot of organizations want to get into the design without thoroughly understanding the problem, and that there’s a lot of resistance to talking about problems. People get uncomfortable. People start shifting in their seat when you start talking about a real problem and really probing into it. So I love that. I love your phrase, “A problem well-defined is half-solved.” But I think I have found repeatedly, people just get uncomfortable talking about a problem.
STEVE NEDVIDEK: Mm-hmm. Well, and you have to know when to stop talking about it and when to actually start doing something with it.
BILL YATES: Right.
STEVE NEDVIDEK: And that’s kind of the key is the understand stage. And we put a lot more emphasis on this now than we did back in the previous eras of Chick-fil-A is because, when you are solving a problem for 2,000 restaurants, it’s a lot different than when you’re solving for 10. And so you have to be more disciplined to be able to figure out and hit it from a variety of different ways.
ANDY CROWE: Say more about that. Why is it different?
STEVE NEDVIDEK: Well, I mean, the scale kills you. You have to figure out how regionality affects the problem. You have to figure out how, in some instances, the type of the concept affects the problem. Are you talking about a restaurant with four walls? Are you talking about a drive-through only? Are you talking about an inline kind of a store where you’re on the Avenue of the Americas in New York City, which is no drive-through, just walk-up. So are you talking about an airport location? A hospital location? So you have more concepts now that this problem overlays. And you’ve got to figure out how to solve the problem in all of those different concepts.
ANDY CROWE: What does the maximization of benefit look like.
STEVE NEDVIDEK: That’s right, that’s right. So when you get to the point of really beginning to ideate and solve for the thing that you understand, that really doesn’t take an incredible amount of time, compared to some of the other stages, because everybody, most everybody that I’ve run into on staff has been in a brainstorm session or likes to ideate or, you know, likes to throw ideas up against a wall.
But what you do with them, how you evaluate them, and then how do you come up with prototypes where you can actually test and try things fast, where you can go quickly, that’s where project managers can really help because you don’t want to have – you don’t need an idea to be perfect at this point. You’re still okay with it being muddy. You’re still okay with it moving through the process as it’s toggling back and forth between imagine and prototype, imagine > prototype, imagine > prototype, until you get something that you feel like you can validate, put in a test restaurant somewhere and see, does it solve the problem you’re trying to solve at the beginning? And if it doesn’t, where did you go wrong? You know, whose voice was it that caused it to change? Did the problem actually change over time? And then of course launching it to 2,000-plus restaurants.
NICK WALKER: Can you give us some examples of some of the ideas that were hatched, incubated I guess, here at Hatch?
STEVE NEDVIDEK: Sure.
NICK WALKER: Was it menu as well as restaurant layout?
STEVE NEDVIDEK: It was, yeah, it was all those things, Nick. I mean, we worked on things that were IT related. So the Chick-fil-A One digital app, that was worked on at Hatch and went through the innovation process. We worked on internal things for how do we work with our operator franchisees to do accounting procedures? The coolest thing is to see accountants innovate. And they do.
BILL YATES: Smoke coming out of their ears.
STEVE NEDVIDEK: It’s just different, you know, you walk into a room, and there are numbers all over the board. Because spreadsheets are prototypes.
ANDY CROWE: But you know the famous joke, Steve, is to find the best accountant, you ask them what’s two plus two. And the one who says four is not it. The one who says three is not it. The one who says “Do you have any particular number in mind,” that’s the accountant you want. So I think innovation, they can get a little too innovative sometimes for the IRS.
STEVE NEDVIDEK: Well, you have everybody that’s in different departments at Chick-fil-A, there are innovators in all those different departments. So they’re not all just wired one way. They’re wired in a multiplicity of ways. But one of the things that comes to mind that was a big one, that we really, really did explore in Hatch, was our first Manhattan location. When you think about a restaurant in Manhattan, and this was really more disruptive innovation for us because location ties you down to specific systems that you have to put into place. So when you have a location that has three stories, you have to figure out how to split a kitchen in half. We’d never done that before. There was no need to do that before. And suddenly you have a need to figure out what goes on what level and what goes on another level.
Or something as simple in Manhattan as how do you refrigerate trash? Now, think about it. Because people don’t usually think about that. When you’re walking down the streets of New York, when do you see trash? At night. The streets, like, open up. Those big metal grids open up, and the trash just comes vomiting out under the sidewalk, and then they take it to New Jersey in the middle of the night or wherever they put it.
BILL YATES: The garden place of America.
STEVE NEDVIDEK: But I just – I know that we had to solve for things like that, that were functional. But for us the biggie was what we called “upstream ordering.” And that was how do you take a line of people, a massive amount of people, a line that stretches from Sixth Avenue to Fifth Avenue, and get them through in a fast way. And you don’t do it the way that we do it in a suburban Chick-fil-A.
So we had to come up with all new systems in place. We used an operator innovation team, which I lead five times a year, to solve those problems. And we worked with project managers who were working off of deadlines to solve those problems. So it was a beautiful marriage of innovative thinking, project managers, people out in the field who were testing things as we went along, in order to be able to launch when we did in Manhattan. And Forbes magazine called that system of upstream ordering, when they wrote an article about it, “the master stroke.” And that’s what happens when you get people who are wired differently working together on a problem, and working on a deadline, and solving the problem that they’re trying to understand.
BILL YATES: That’s fantastic.
STEVE NEDVIDEK: Yeah. It’s a great story. I would highly encourage anybody who’s in Manhattan to go see our Chick-fil-A restaurants there. They’re fantastic.
BILL YATES: One of the things that you mentioned that I thought was a very important point, I want to go back and sit there for a moment. You said you have innovators in the different departments at Chick-fil-A.
STEVE NEDVIDEK: Yes.
BILL YATES: So who are these people? Who are these people?
STEVE NEDVIDEK: Well, you come to understand over time that there are folks that just walk up to you and go, “I like what you do. How do you do more of that?” Or for me, I’m a stimulate-progress person, personally. And if I’m in a preserve-the-core function, I get real antsy because that’s just not the way that I’m wired. So how do I explore, within this preserve-the-core function, those ideas of innovation and trying new things? And we have a lot of personal conversations.
In fact, what we have now is we’ve created a whole team of innovation coaches. So we have coaches in each of the departments, and we’re growing this list of people who are wired for innovation. But seriously, they’re like in the legal department, and they’re wired for innovation. Or they’re working in real estate. Or they’re working in accounting. And so it’s refreshing to see that there are people that you can find that have the wiring and the discipline that you need to be able to live in these departments and then influence their department toward, not just preserving the core, but stimulating progress when you have to.
ANDY CROWE: And you know another element that really relates to preserving the core. When you’re talking about accountants, when you’re talking about lawyers in particular, and I’m sure some of our listeners fall into each of those camps, those can be very risk-averse professions and disciplines. A lot of, you know, a lot of law you’re taught to manage the downside of risk at every turn. Accounting’s the same way. It can be very binary.
STEVE NEDVIDEK: That’s right.
ANDY CROWE: Now you’re bringing those people in and teaching them to innovate, you’ve got to, to some degree, get them comfortable with risk and with failure.
STEVE NEDVIDEK: That’s true. And the people that you are really bringing into the fold are people that probably already have a natural bent toward risking more.
ANDY CROWE: They just got convinced to go into law or accounting.
STEVE NEDVIDEK: Yeah, exactly. Or that’s where they found that they could make a living. Or that’s where they are currently. That may not be where they wind up in their career journey, but that’s the group that they’re in currently. So what’s really key to make this thing work is to have senior leadership recognize that, within your department, people are wired differently.
There’s one friend that I have in financial services that has figured out on his leadership team who are the people who preserve the core, and who are the people that stimulate progress. And the people that preserve the core work on annual budgets and annual plans, and they make sure that things are being met along the way and milestones are being hit. And the people that are interested in stimulating progress are the people that are working on long-range planning. So they’re thinking three to five years out. So they’re thinking about what is broke and where is the pain that needs to be fixed.
So they’re all working together; but he’s got them separated into, okay, so here’s your focus, and here’s your focus. And I believe that every department that’s got some size to it has people like that. And I think it’s really, really incumbent upon a smart leader to understand who their people are, how they’re wired, and to unleash them into those areas, knowing that they’ve got to work together in order to ultimately accomplish their goals.
BILL YATES: Agree with that 100 percent. I’ve met some of your innovators, and they’re very – they’re creative. They’re fun. And the ideas just flow. They wake up, and the ideas start flowing. There’s a part of me professionally that gets intimidated or scared by that. And it is that piece, the project manager piece of me going, wow, what if we were working on a project, and I had a couple of these innovators on there? How would we coexist? How would we – I could just see the conversations of, okay, we need to nail the scope of this engagement, this project, by this date because we have to kick off the first week in August or whatever. But they want more time. Or they want to evaluate. Or they want to talk to more customers. They want to do more, maybe viewing the sites and seeing how the current process works. What are some keys to success that you’ve seen with those innovators that your group has trained to help them interface with project managers so that they can coexist?
STEVE NEDVIDEK: Well, you have to realize that innovators may be just as scared as project managers as project managers are with innovators.
BILL YATES: Right.
STEVE NEDVIDEK: And that what they do really well, the other group doesn’t. So that can be intimidating for both groups. But again, I would go back to leadership and recognizing that you can’t spend forever making something perfect. So you have to realize that perfect is the enemy of good. And a lot of times things are good enough, and you have to move forward because you’re in a learning journey. People get thrown off when they’re in imagine because they go, well, we can’t do that. We can’t – look, you’re just in imagine. You’re not anywhere near launch yet. You still have three other stages to get to before you’re going to get it into restaurants. So give yourself the time to make those mistakes and learn. But also give yourself the grace to know that you’re not going to get it right, and we’re going to – but we do have deadlines that we have to meet in order to open up the store in Manhattan. That deadline wasn’t changing. We had to get it right, and we knew it. And that extra pressure is sometimes really helpful.
ANDY CROWE: I can’t imagine some of your competitors going through this process. I’ve been in different implementations, different fast food places, different quick serve. And I can’t imagine some of the competition disciplining and going through this that way.
I’ve got a question for you, Steve. As I’m thinking this through, one of the things that I’ve found is that processes quickly put down roots. When an organization implements a new process or an old process, they formalize it. It puts down roots. And now all of a sudden you have people’s career paths aligning to that process. You have compensation plans aligning to that process. And so what happens is that process resists going away. It fights for its life. It takes on – it almost becomes a living thing. And now you’re in an innovation center where sometimes it’s going to be to put in a new process, but sometimes it’s going to be to retire an old one at the same time. What do you see in that regard? How do you approach a problem like that?
STEVE NEDVIDEK: Andy, I think one of the big things that we’ve learned in the last couple years to that very point is you’ve got to have folks around you who are really gifted in change management and being able to – it’s kind of like they have to translate. You’ve got one group that speaks one way; one group that speaks another way. And then you’ve got a group that’s kind of in the middle that’s responsible for change management. So they understand, what’s the pain that this is going to cause when we change? What are the fears that people are going to have if we do this? What’s the security that they can know when this change does occur? And what’s the process that we have to use and the timeline that we have to use in order to see this thing that has been rooted for so long pulled up, and to have this new thing planted.
And so those are new words. It’s a new language that we’re spending a lot of time thinking about, not just the change management piece, but really digging deep into how does innovation and project management world overlay? So all the tools that the PMs are using, how do those tools fall into understand, imagine, prototype?
ANDY CROWE: You know, years ago, right, I worked with a utility that was struggling with this idea of change management. And I engaged with them to kind of help them through this. And one of the things that we figured out from the start is you’re putting in all of these processes, but none of them have a sunset clause. None of them have an expiration date. So suddenly there’s a new process, and it is the law of the land forever. It doesn’t get revisited, doesn’t get looked at again. And each of those things constrains you, which they’re supposed to. You want, you know, I think a couple of weeks ago you talked about the coleslaw. You don’t want people innovating at the store level on the coleslaw recipe. You want some constraints in place. But there comes a time when people need to revisit these processes, look at them again, and take a fresh look and decide do they get renewed.
STEVE NEDVIDEK: Well, and that product of coleslaw is a really interesting way to kind of end the talk because we don’t have coleslaw anymore. We have a superfood side, and it’s kale.
BILL YATES: Wow.
STEVE NEDVIDEK: And why do we have that? Because when you talk to – now, I love coleslaw. Don’t get me wrong. I’d eat it every day if I could. But when you talk to new people that are coming in, new customers, when you’re looking at trends and you’re thinking, look at things that have changed. You have to move from A to B. And for us, the pain that people still feel with having one of their favorite products gone, it is tough. But knowing as an organization that that’s the step you have to take in order to kind of stay relevant and know what you’re going to be doing and what revenue streams are going to be available to you in the future, I mean, coleslaw’s a great example of change management.
NICK WALKER: Well, Steve Nedvidek, we are indebted to you for your time and sharing your expertise and creativity with us. We’re going to try to repay part of that debt right now. A parting gift for you, this shiny new Manage This…
STEVE NEDVIDEK: Yay.
NICK WALKER: …coffee mug, tea mug. You can put coleslaw in it.
STEVE NEDVIDEK: I could put coleslaw in this.
NICK WALKER: A perfect companion as you eat more chicken.
STEVE NEDVIDEK: Well, thank you very much, Nick. I appreciate it. And thank you, Andy, and thank you, Bill, for having me here. It’s been my pleasure.
NICK WALKER: Hey, before you go, how can our listeners connect with you?
STEVE NEDVIDEK: Of course LinkedIn is one way to find me. And then my email is always great, too: steve.nedvidek, N‑E‑D‑V‑I‑D‑E‑K at cfacorp.com. And I’ll try to get back to people as soon as I can.
NICK WALKER: Well, thanks again, Steve. Andy and Bill, great conversation. Thanks so much.
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