The Innovation Spectrum with Starbucks

The Innovation Time Scale is longer than you think.

Innovation efforts can often be long and tiring. Occasionally they never make it to reality. I’ll use the example of my last full-time job; Starbucks. Many of the projects that I worked on never came to fruition, sadly. Although I cannot talk about the failed, yet to be, or ‘maybe someday’ projects (due to confidentiality reasons), what I can talk about are the handful of projects that are publicly view-able.

Starbucks does commendable job on all the various points along the innovation spectrum. They are constantly introducing new products, seasonal specials, and one off promotions. Starbucks nails incremental innovation. On the other end of the spectrum is what has come to be known as “disruptive innovation.” This type of innovation is extremely difficult to do well; attempting to justify the initial investment and stomaching the inevitable failures along the way are no easy feats. It reminds me of the advertisement supposedly ran by Ernest Shackleton in 1900 when he was seeking shipmates for a voyage to the south pole:

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That’s about how it feels working on a project that may or may not make it out alive, with the uncertainty that your work will be worth the effort.

I was part of the technical design team on a robotic coffee brewer; and now, years later, it’s being put into a handful of Starbucks stores. Presumably, if the test goes well (customers and baristas like it, economic costs work out, etc), the machine will roll out to a larger population of stores. Then, over a period of years, it could eventually roll out to all stores. These escalating tests make perfect sense when you consider that each one requires a larger investment of time, money, and resources.

Another example of a project I worked on which is still in a much earlier stage is the bottom fill espresso. There’s only one prototype in existence – as I said, this is a very early test. Coincidentally, I’m enjoying a delicious cappuccino made on this machine. The customers in the coffee shop sure seem to like the product and the experience of watching espresso brew, and milk steam. Who knows – 10 years from now, your local Starbucks store may have one.

I have many close friends who worked on launching the Roastery (including the new line of up leveled Starbucks cafes) and watched their efforts closely over the past few years. It’s a massive undertaking to re-invent a well-known brand and launch entirely new business models.

It remains to be seen whether Starbucks will be able to successfully monetize an experience-driven coffee shop model or invent and launch groundbreaking coffee brewing equipment. The takeaway is that they must try. Companies that continually work to disrupt themselves are well positioned to fend off competitors and upstarts. I have a lot of respect for Starbucks and their innovation efforts – I may not work there anymore, but I’ll always bleed green.