A long habit of not thinking a thing WRONG, gives it a superficial appearance of being RIGHT, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.
– Thomas Paine, Common Sense
The greatest thinkers, artists, leaders and entrepreneurs have also bucked the norm, challenged the status quo. Think Einstein, Picasso, Gandhi or Branson. I loathe the phrase “think outside the box.” THERE IS NO BOX, so what is everyone trying to get out of? Once you get comfortable with this notion, you will tap into your ability to create something new, unique and long lasting. You will be able to think of processes, concepts, methods that change not only your model but the model of an entire industry.
When we first conceived of ‘wichcraft, we did not think of it as a better Subway Sandwich shop. We wanted to create a business that changed the way you feed as many people as possible much better food. Better for us was intuitive but not to everyone at the time. It meant food that tasted better, was prepared on site, was made to order and sourced from producers, farmers and vendors who we knew personally who we had been working with for years. These were methods and values of a fine dining restaurant, but not a sandwich shop. Not a place that required us to serve over 500 people in a location per day. We essentially asked, “how do you stuff a fine dining restaurant between two slices of bread?” Achieving this has taken time, patience, fortitude and most importantly a constant questioning of the standards and the process. Being able to iterate on an idea, experiment with tradition and fact, and to challenge the norm is the work of both genius and stupidity at the same time.
Possibly one of the biggest innovations we have developed is in the way we think about leadership and the role of senior management in our organization. In the traditional model of a restaurant or a company, the hierarchy is a top down pyramid, where the hourly staff, the larger group of employees is there to serve the needs of the few. e.g. the middle manager reports to the senior manager, etc… (BTW, did you know that the word company is derived from the latin for one who eats bread with you. I will make the argument that a restaurant is the original business). We have literally turned this concept upside down and think of the corporate hierarchy as an inverted pyramid in which the few report to the many. Our senior managers have changed their mindset and view their primary job as that of supporting those who work directly above / below (pick one) them.
We are not the only ones who have tried this in the food industry. Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield is a perfect example of turning a business model on its head and actually leading an industry into new territory. As Gary likes to say, “In the early days, we had a great business, a great product, just no supply & no demand”. I chuckle every time he says that as it reminds me of the early days of many great businesses, in food and elsewhere. More often than not the graveyard of business is filled with brazen ideas who were ahead of their time. This always gives me hope, optimism and excitement for the possibilities to break molds, change the course of business and develop revolutionary ideas.