What Hot Cheetos Can Teach Us About Innovation

Innovators are rare.

I’m not saying that there aren’t any. They’re out there. They care about their work and push the limits of themselves and their organizations. Nonetheless, there is a shortage of them. I’d wager that most people start off caring and wanting to push the limits. But they get discouraged or tangled up in the red tape. If you are a leader of an organization, cut the red tape, and let these innovators innovate. That’s how one of the best Cheetos flavors came to be made.

In the 1970s, Richard Montanez was a janitor working at a Frito Lay facility. One day, the CEO released a video with a message that all employees should act like owners. In response, Montanez began experimenting with a new flavor of Cheetos. When he was satisfied with his new flavor, he decided to do something janitors don’t usually do; he called the CEO! Surprisingly, the CEO agreed to meet with him.

Montanez didn’t know anything about presentations or marketing strategy. It was a bump in the road, but his wife had a plan. They would get a book and form a presentation off of the information they learned. Their work paid off. Montanez now leads Multicultural Sales and Community Promotions. His flavor? One of the best-selling Frito Lay products of all time, Hot Cheetos.

Montanez could have been a janitor that stuck to doing janitor things (No offense to janitors). Instead, he decided to be an innovator. That’s what drove him to experiment with a new Cheetos flavor. We can all make the same decision. We can choose to do things that others in similar circumstances normally wouldn’t do. We can call the CEO. Many people won’t.

Many people also don’t take initiative to expand their knowledge and skills. Not only do they not innovate in their organizations, they do not innovate personally. They no longer put in the effort once they have achieved a certain level of education or experience.

I went out to lunch with a degreed friend of mine and asked her if she reads books. She doesn’t. Not even books related to her profession. Reading books isn’t the only way to learn, but it didn’t seem she was doing much to sharpen her skills outside of work. It can be argued that experience is the best teacher. She doesn’t need to read books. She can learn by doing. But reading allows you to learn from the experiences of others. You may discover ideas or methods that would have never crossed your mind. You can build off the work of others. That’s different than just copying exactly what they do.

Montanez didn’t copy and paste when he created Hot Cheetos. It wasn’t a cheap imitation of Cheetos that he introduced to the world. He took the existing product and modified it to become one of the most loved chip flavors of all time. He improved upon the work of another.

It’s our responsibility to continuously push forward in whatever arena, industry, organization, community or family where we operate. We must build upon the accomplishments of the previous generation. We cannot be satisfied with plateau or its close cousin, decline. Consider this passage of scripture from the Book of Judges.

“The people worshiped God throughout the lifetime of Joshua and the time of the leaders who survived him, leaders who had been in on all of God’s great work that he had done for Israel. Then Joshua son of Nun, the servant of God, died. He was 110 years old. They buried him in his allotted inheritance at Timnath Heres in the hills of Ephraim north of Mount Gaash. Eventually that entire generation died and was buried. Then another generation grew up that didn’t know anything of God or the work he had done for Israel. The People of Israel did evil in God’s sight: they served Baal-gods; they deserted God, the God of their parents who had led them out of Egypt; they took up with other gods, gods of the peoples around them. They actually worshiped them! And oh, how they angered God as they worshiped god Baal and goddess Astarte! God’s anger was hot against Israel: He handed them off to plunderers who stripped them; he sold them cheap to enemies on all sides. They were helpless before their enemies.”

Joshua knew and followed God. The generation after him? Not so much. They completely forgot about God and slipped into spiritual decadency. They did not build upon the existing spiritual state of the nation of Israel. The spiritual decline was so steep that God allowed their enemies to overpower them. We are speaking of spiritual things here, but I believe the principle stands in other areas.

We cannot completely forget about the accomplishments, spiritual or otherwise, that the generations before us have made. Yet, we cannot keep doing the same thing. Doing the same thing would be dishonoring what they have done. We must improve upon the work that has been done. We must build upon it. We must innovate.

Being an innovator doesn’t depend on your position in life. It doesn’t depend on family history, education or your current job title. You don’t have to be a renowned doctor, lawyer or business magnate. You could be a janitor and still innovate. No one in your family may have ever earned a degree. No one in your family may have ever started a business. You can be the first. Others will follow. The hope is that the generations after you will do what you did and build upon what you’ve done.

Don’t ever be satisfied with the way things are. Don’t keep practicing the same processes, habits and methods. Grow your skills and knowledge. Find out what’s happening at the cutting-edge of your industry. Experiment by doing things differently than usual because the world needs better Cheetos flavors… err I mean innovators.

What’s been your experience as far as innovation? Drop me a comment!

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