Innovation Dynamics — tell me why its shit!

Sitting in a bustling neighbourhood sidewalk café with a couple of old friends, I order the breakfast combo delight. Tel-Avivian breakfasts are famous for their combination of lovely little tapas assortments of salads and cheeses, served with eggs, and steaming breads fresh out of the oven. Unfortunately my spread is slightly disappointing. Not that it’s particularly bad, just not the gastronomical treat I’ve missed so much living in London for so many years. In true Israeli fashion, my friends who notice my lack of enthusiasm, tell a passing waitress that my breakfast is “absolutely awful”. Embarrassed, I try telling her not to worry about it. Unapologetic yet highly receptive, she calls over the café owner.

In his mid-forties, Gabi has set up a couple of highly successful cafés with his brother, catering to a combined crowd of young urban professionals running life via their laptops, and mothers looking for a break and a chat on their morning strolls. He works attentively to update his menu on a weekly basis, continuously attempting new combinations of innovative dishes and presentations. “So what was wrong?” he asks with a rather stern face? I try saying that it was fine and that I didn’t mean to complain, in essence trying to shift the blame on to my friends. However, I quickly realise that my attempts at politeness are simply annoying him. He is not trying to please a somewhat disappointed customer, he is genuinely looking for highly valuable information.

Once I adjust myself, the conversation flows — “the scrambled eggs were a bit salty, the herbs in the tuna were too bitter and the tomato salad lacked seasoning. The green tahini however was great and so was the bread”. Finally getting the intel he needed Gabi smiles, thanks me and walks away. Within a few minutes, looking at the breakfasts served around me I start noticing the adaptation, with the tuna and tomato salads swapped for some alternative variations. This active quest for detailed feedback seems to repeat itself throughout the weekend. Sitting in a sushi bar that night I’m queried by the waiter about their barbecue steamed bun — “did you like it? Think it’s too big? Need more sauce inside? We just started serving it yesterday…”; and even when presented with a glorious mango parfait at a top fancy restaurant, the waiter pauses for a minute before serving, and asks — what do you think about this look? Should we leave it as a pyramid, or switch to igloo?” (We went with pyramid).

This cultural preference for short iterations, direct feedback, and swift adaptation might not be for the thin-skinned. Moreover, its real value is not simply down to individual initiatives but rather to the systemic patterns they together create. Such innovation patterns require a certain network density — Tel-Aviv is big enough to allow the emergence of a highly competitive and lively food scene, yet small enough to facilitate rapid information flows. The high levels of connectivity between chefs, restaurateurs, employees, and customers, means many of them have a chance to test each other’s places and/or hear of other’s personal experiences. They also require certain organisational structures — most eateries are independent and therefore nimble setups, not cumbersome chain brands with multiple managerial layers as more prevalent in the American and British markets. In some cases, scale might be a hindrance.

Last but not least is a unique appreciation of the organisation’s “sensory nerves” — its front line employees. Those directly interacting with customers feel part of their job, and in fact personal status in their organisation, draws on their ability to observe customer behaviour. They become the key conduits for relaying vital information on anything from the dishes served, to the design of the venue, and its overall ambiance. In which case, detailed criticism is deemed more worthy information than general compliments.

Still my local friends would further criticise even this seemingly healthy innovative pattern, suggesting “you need to know when to stop and scale up. Things you loved last week may not be on the menu this week, or have been transformed into something else.” Perhaps life in perpetual Beta should be restricted to a few dishes at a time.

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