What Taco Bell Can Teach You About Innovation

Friday, July 18, 2014

Taco Bell may not be the first place you’d think to look for lessons in business innovation, but then again, maybe you haven’t been paying much attention since late March when their new waffle taco hit the menu.

The genesis of the Waffle Taco came from a photo on Facebook. Heather Mottershaw, director for product development at Taco bell, was reading her Facebook updates when she saw a picture of a waffle wrapped around eggs, avocados, and other breakfast fixings, sandwich-style.

Instead of waiting to discuss the idea, she went to the grocery store, bought some frozen waffles, and took them into the office on a Monday morning. By 9am, she had fried up some waffles into a taco shell shape at the Taco Bell test kitchens, and began stuffing them with breakfast ingredients. Her actions created a buzz around the office, getting everyone on board with her vision quickly.

This idea of quick prototyping, quick actions, and continuous testing and change is one that should interest anyone in any industry where innovation and new products are critical to success.

Regardless of your chosen field, what are the lessons you can take from Taco Bell’s new foods like the quesarito and waffle taco?

Have a lot of ideas: According to an article in Bloomberg Businessweek, Taco Bell's innovation team looks at 4,000 to 4,500 different ideas each year. From that number, only around 10% are even tested with consumers. Of the 300 to 500 products tested, e8 to 10 make it to the menu. If you don't start with a lot of ideas, it's hard to filter down to a few excellent ones.

When inspiration strikes, take action: Whenever designing new products, speed is important. Some of the most famous innovation and design shops, like the industrial design company IDEO, world-renowned for its many successful design projects, help encourage the speedy development of an idea through quick prototyping. IDEO is a trailblazer in the idea that you should prototype quickly so you can change, test, change, and continually make progress on an idea. With that structure, you know quickly whether you’ll ditch it or get it to market.

Taco Bell follows similar principles, encouraging team members to act quickly as soon as they have an idea. Most of Taco Bell’s new foods start off as spur-of-the-moment ideas, and are brought to market on relatively short time frames compared to other business innovations.

Test and change: Creating a new menu item at Taco Bell isn't as simple as saying, “Let's swap the taco shell for a waffle.” Taco Bell's consumer testing is rigorous. Developers create a prototype and then try it out in their offices. After it's passed that test, they go out to test markets and see what their customers think before rolling it out. All along the way, they're making changes. The Waffle Taco went through 80 different iterations before becoming a staple of the breakfast menu.

Taco Bell's roadmap is hard to dismiss. In a soft market, and a highly competitive one, they grew 8% in 2012 and 3% in 2013.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re designing one-handed breakfast food or shopping carts—these innovation principles will serve you well. 

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photo credit: sonicmac via photopin cc

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