Saul Kaplan: Nooks and Crannies

photo-saulNooks and crannies are important to both English muffins and innovation.

I haven’t been able to get a picture of a lightly toasted Thomas’ English muffin with butter and strawberry preserves oozing into those marvelous nooks and crannies out of my head.  Maybe it’s because I’m resisting the temptation while on one of my frequent short-lived diet and exercise delusions.  More likely it’s because of a story that caught my eye last week about an executive who left the company (Bimbo Bakeries, I’m not kidding) that makes Thomas’ English Muffins to join the arch enemy, Hostess Brands.  It seems that Bimbo is suing to prevent the executive from joining Hostess because they suspect he has absconded with and will divulge the secret of how to make English muffins with perfect nooks and crannies.

You heard right.  The row is about protecting the trade secret for creating nooks and crannies in an English muffin.  Bimbo claims there are only seven people who possess the trade secret and of course the executive leaving to make Twinkies is one of them.  I find it hard to believe that only seven people have the know-how necessary to create great nooks and crannies. It sounds more like a marketing ploy. But what do I know.  I thought it was just using a fork to split the muffin!  Think about it.  Samuel Bath Thomas left England headed for America in 1874 with a recipe for his muffin baked on hot griddles.  Surely in over 135 years more than seven people have accumulated the know-how for nooks and crannies. And how are we to know if Samuel Thomas didn’t borrow the formula before heading for fame and fortune in America. Not to accuse Samuel Thomas of pilfering the recipe and starting an English muffin revolution but it does sound eerily similar to Samuel Slater escaping England with the trade secrets for the textile mill, which of course started the U.S. Industrial Revolution!

No surprise that nooks and crannies are the secret to a great English muffin.  Those air pockets allow for both perfect toasting and a natural repository for the aforementioned butter and jam.  So Bimbo Bakery goes to incredible lengths to protect its know-how.  Instead of recipes they use codebooks. Employees are on a need to know basis and only have access to the pages of the codebook necessary to complete their specific task.  They are shielded from the information and people in departments working on other tasks.  It doesn’t sound like a formula for innovation but then maybe Bimbo isn’t interested in innovation.  Perhaps they are  just obsessed with protecting the status quo for the nooks and crannies of English muffin making.

Nooks and crannies are also the secret to great innovation.  Innovators thrive in nooks and crannies and refuse to stay in any silo barred from communicating across them.  They know freely exploring nooks and crannies is the only way to get better faster. Nooks and crannies increase the surface area an innovator can expose to the best knowledge flows and new ideas.  With more surface area comes greater exposure to and absorption of a broader range of ideas, experiences, and capabilities.  A thoughtfully comprised network of unusual suspects increases an innovator’s surface area.  Social media platforms are just nooks and crannies on steroids to an innovator.

Innovators also know that most important innovations emerge from the nooks and crannies between silos, disciplines, and industry sectors.  It is by combining and recombining ideas and capabilities from across silos that innovators create new ways to deliver value.  System solutions for the big social challenges of our time including education, health care, and energy, will only be found if we get more comfortable in the nooks and crannies between us.  Pass the strawberry preserves.


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