Food for thought – what hackathons and elBulli have in common

Can a restaurant and tech start up use a similar creative process? Food for thought.

A hackathon is a portmanteau of”hack” and “marathon”. It is an event that brings tech people together to do exploratory programming for a few hours or days. Participants organize in teams to develop an idea and put together a prototype, presented at the end of the event.  In the last 20 years, Hackathons have become widespread and are commonly used by organizations and venture capitalists to create innovative concepts, develop new technologies and identify projects to be funded.

elBulli was a Michelin 3 star restaurant in Roses run by vanguardist chef Ferran Adrià. It was considered the top restaurant in the world by Restaurant Magazine for five consecutive years until it closed in 2011. Since then, Adrià has been focusing on developing creativity methodologies through elBulli Foundation.

You can learn more about the restaurant’s story and it’s creative process in the documentary El Bulli: Cooking in Progress .  I recommend it to anyone interested in innovation or tech. It shows how elBulli closed six months a year to let the team focus exclusively on elBulliTaller where they created new flavors, textures and concepts to be integrated in the menu.

Both hackathons and elBulliTaller come from the realization that reserving a time to try new ideas without risk is key for sustaining innovation. Here is what I see they have in common.

Deliberate creativity

Explicitly saying that a certain period of time will be spent solely on exploring new ideas, and that there is no expectation of people working on other tasks, is extremely helpful to make the team focus and let their creativity shine.

During the exercise, people focus on questioning assumptions and pushing the boundaries of what we think is possible. What is wine? is it still wine if it’s not a drink? It is about exploring new perspectives, but it is also very practical: code a small isolated functionality and see if it works, try a new cooking technique on a mushroom and taste it right in that moment. One has to be ready to be surprised and  to build on new findings.

The fact that the exercise is separate from business activities directly connected to the customer means that errors in this context – or rather ideas that don’t work – have no bad consequences. People are therefore free to explore, to try, and to learn from each trial.

Team work

Forget the myth of the genius artist magically coming up with ideas on his own. Both hackathons and elBulliTaller are based on the understanding that we create better together. It is useful to get others’ perspective and to discuss ideas with them.

“The system is very complex. Don’t think that one wakes up in the morning, has an idea, and that’s it.”    Ferran Adrià in El Bulli: Cooking in Progress

A culture of open feedback is what will make collaboration work. We want to be able to say that the new suggested flavor is not that exciting, or that a certain algorithm will not work. Opinions should be given constructively, not taken too personally, and look to build on others’ suggestions. Even then, people are people with emotions. So we will also need empathy, and knowing and caring for each other,to be able to have honest direct communication. Creativity is not about ego, but rather about a collective appetite for new ideas.

Purposeful

We need to know the ultimate goal of what we are doing. This is what gives meaning and direction to our challenging of assumptions. We want to feel free of constraints, but we also need to remember our purpose, which could be as broad as creating a new social network for foodies, or coming up with new surprising dishes for next season’s menu.

Sometimes, trying a new technology will be the central part of the exercise. But it’s not technology for the sake of it. There has to be an underlying reason why we are trying it. At the end of the day, we are looking to connect with another human being, be it through a product or through a dish. So it’s important to keep this person in mind.

“The most important is the emotion that we are after. Sometimes we will use technology for that. Other times, we won’t.”   Ferran Adrià in El Bulli: Cooking in Progress

It is not the end

A hackathon, as well as six months of work at elBulliTaller, have a concrete outcome. A prototype. However, this is hardly the end of the innovation process. What comes next is the hard work of making it real, scaling, and keeping a constant rhythm of testing small changes, listening to people’s feedback and adapting.

An app developed in a hackathon is, by definition, “hacked”. It will need to have its code improved or rebuilt entirely to account for different use cases and to make sure it is ready to support higher usage levels. It might need a better design, or a new catchy name. And when it starts being used by people, we should be talking to them and looking at usage data, most probably to realize that the app lacks important features or that some others are never used. Agile methodologies make it easier to react to user feedback and to quickly iterate to improve the product.

The new dishes developed in elBulliTaller had never been cooked or served in a restaurant before. They were not introduced all at once, since cooks had to learn how to prepare them and that people’s reactions to them were still completely unknown. Instead, Adrià introduced just a few new dishes each week, combining them with dishes from the previous year. He had a systematic method where he would not only try the full menu himself, to be in the shoes of the diners, but would also request feedback from the waiters after each service on what customers had disliked, left unfinished and what amazed them. Based on the experience and feedback, elBulli made small adjustments to the order of dishes in the menu, quantities in a specific dish, or added an extra ingredient here and there for the missing touch of flavor.

The innovation process in a restaurant is not necessarily that different from that used in the tech world, and probably in other disciplines. Reserve specific times to focus on creating new ideas and prototyping, then follow up with continuous testing, listening and adapting.

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