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The Mongolian Barbeque Effect on Innovation

There is a new Starbucks in the main hall of the business school where I teach.

chalkboard_innovation1There is a new Starbucks in the main hall of the business school where I teach. I stand amazed as baristas call out the customized concoctions like an auctioneer at the Sotheby’s rapidly selling off some priceless artifact of value to only a rarefied few collectors. Surely that Grande half-soy double white mocha macchiato with a dollop of foam is of little interest to the next person in line. I am astounded for mine is a generation where such complex customization was inconceivable but I am equally confounded by how we have come to mistake a system of production for substantive and meaningful innovation.

I grew up in the age of McDonald’s where reverse engineering your one size fits all sandwich was a common practice. My aversion to pickles required that I pick them out of the red and yellow goo and offer them to one of my annoying siblings who wanted extra ones. So you can well imagine the irrational exuberance I felt when Burger King boldly pronounced “Have it your way.” OK, it only meant that you could have a few flourishes tailored to taste but at least they involved the customer in the customization process. When historians write about the liberation movements of the Twentieth-Century they should well remember the day that our food was freed.

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The assembly line linage of mass customization goes way back:

  • 1700s: Josiah Wedgwood’s pottery barn at Stoke-on-Trent
  • 1800s: The meat packing plants of Chicago that Sinclair Lewis chronicled and turned many a young reader into vegetarians
  • 1900s: Henry Ford’s gargantuan Rouge Factory that takes megalomania to an entirely new level
  • 2000s: Starbucks which turned the alchemy of coffee into theater and transformed the restaurant into your own office or favorite pick-up place

I propose that we have now entered the age the Mongolian barbeque. Think of it as the global cousin of the salad bar run amuck. Everything that grows or roams upon this planet of ours is available to be combined in the most repugnant amalgamations conceivable. How about a little mango-sauerkraut salsa on that pork tripe? The Mongolian barbeque is a chance for people who can’t cook and don’t know good food from bad to develop a false sense of accomplishment and perhaps even an inflated feeling of self-esteem. Look what I made! When you were in kindergarten it was cute but as an adult it’s just another example of your poor judgment.

Let’s call these endless variations that produce mindless combinations as well as other narcissistic forms of customization the Mongolian Barbeque Effect. This phenomenon extends well beyond the gastronomical selfie and is turning all manner of endeavor and expression into an egotistic form of voyeurism – Watch me watch you watch me. It is here that the line between distinction and delusion is obscured. In a world where everything is a micro-micro segment of one and all works of originality are deemed relative there is no place for innovation because there is no ability to distinguish the new and the great from the different and the preferable. As the villain Syndrome in Pixar’s The Incredibles prophetically mumbles, “And when everyone's super, no one will be.”

Surely there is an upside to such customization. Everything from personalized medicine to the playlist on your smart phone comes to mind. But what happens when we forsake our true sense of taste for the endless variety of options at the Mongolian barbeque? We trade our ingenious proficiency for convenient efficiency.

Yes, it’s creatively empowering to take beautiful pictures with your phone or compose the song that’s been in your head for years on that intuitive musical app but these authentic acts of creation are not necessary masterful or even art regardless of the encouraging remarks of your social media “friends”. There is a substantive difference between democracy and meritocracy. The admonition that it’s all relative doesn’t mean that it’s all worthy. Rather it suggests that the artifacts, events and expressions of our creativity are relative in that they may be compared to some watermark or touchstone of excellence. Of course there are cultural limits for what we take to be tasteful that would be better served by a more adventurous and diverse palate but this in itself neither makes the work important or incomparable. The Mongolian Barbeque Effect leads us to compare the trivial with the trifle until we lose our ability to discern the difference between the promising course of the novice and the accomplished creations of the Master Chef.

The amorphous mélange of the Mongolian barbeque may lead us to believe that we have freed ourselves from the labels and limits of convention but in doing so enslave ourselves to a prescribed way of creating. For the purpose of any system is to restrict functions and direct them to convergent and predictable ends. Though we appear to have more choices we are actually contained and confined to a few minor iterations. True originality requires eschewing the Mongolian barbeque all together and experiencing some of the infinite variety of truly great cuisines before you embark on creating your own. It is in discovering the originality of others greater than ourselves that we develop the perspective and ability to create a banquet worthy of sharing.

Well the barista is letting me know that my Venti French pressed Sumatran dark roast fair trade coffee is ready now. Though it isn’t an innovation it sure tastes like it.

Jeff DeGraff, Ph.D., is a professor at University of Michigan's Ross School of Business.

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