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Lessons in Business Innovation from Legendary Restaurant elBulli


BRIAN KENNY: What do tires and haute cuisine have in common? The answer was obvious to brothers André and Édouard Michelin. France in 1889 had just a few thousand cars on the road, barely enough to keep their fledgling tire company afloat. So, they created a guidebook to show people all the fun day trips they could take in an automobile. The little red book with the humble beginnings would go on to become the most coveted guide to chefs and foodies everywhere. Of the million or so restaurants in the world, only 137 have achieved a three-star rating in The MICHELIN Guide.

The rating process is akin to a papal search in terms of secrecy and only those restaurants offering unparalleled creativity and exceptional cuisine worth a special journey can dream of earning three stars. Today, on Cold Call, we welcome Professor Michael Norton to discuss his case, “elBulli: The Taste of Innovation.”

I’m your host Brian Kenny and you’re listening to Cold Call on the HBR Podcast Network. Mike Norton is a behavioral economist whose research explores the effects of social norms on people’s attitudes and behavior, and he investigates the psychology of investment. His new book is called The Ritual Effect: From Habit to Ritual, Harness the Surprising Power of Everyday Actions. Mike, welcome.

MIKE NORTON: Thanks, Brian.

BRIAN KENNY: Great to have you here on the show. We haven’t had you here before, so it’s really… I mean, I think a lot of people have probably heard about your research. You do some really interesting research on things like happiness and the ritual stuff is fabulous. So, I want to hear more about the ideas in the book. I think what I’ll ask you to do is start by telling us what the central issue is in the case and what your cold call is to start the discussion.

MIKE NORTON: The cold call for this case is: How much should this guy be charging? That’s all it is.

BRIAN KENNY: That’s it.

MIKE NORTON: They bid each other up and they bid each other down because he’s charging a very low amount, and the restaurant often doesn’t break even and even loses money. So, some students say, “He should charge a million dollars.” Some students say, “He should give it away for free.” The opening question, even though it’s just a price, I literally make a price thermometer and we go up. It starts to highlight what is the role of business, what is the role of art and creativity, and how do we monetize these things, and should we monetize these things.

BRIAN KENNY: All right. For those listeners who don’t know, elBulli is a restaurant located in-

MIKE NORTON: Outside Barcelona.

BRIAN KENNY: Outside Barcelona, and we’re going to hear all about that from Mike who’s been there. That’s why I want to hear about your experience, but also about the creativity that the central protagonist in the case brings to the work that he does. When you told me about your book and I said, “Let’s talk about it on Cold Call,” this was the case that you chose to highlight the ideas in the book, and I’m wondering why that is.

MIKE NORTON: We have this funny thing that we do with food and drink, which is we don’t just eat it and drink it. We do all kinds of things with food and drink. Even like we are going to have a drink with friends and before we have the drink, we raise our glasses up in the air, clink them together with risk spilling it, and stuff like that. Then we say in almost every culture in the world, a one or two-word phrase that means health or luck or good, something like that. So, we do stuff with liquid, literally, if you just think it’s just liquid, we do things with it that are very emotional, very meaningful, totally connecting with family with past generations.

I mean, we really use food for these very emotional things. That was partly what drew me to El Bulli, which is this incredibly ritualistic way of eating and consuming food where, yes, the food is good, but it’s actually not really about the food, it’s about the emotions that Ferran Adrià can create.

BRIAN KENNY: Okay. I’m sure a lot of people can relate to that because we all love a certain dish that was cooked at home when we were growing up, and these things are even much later in life, they bring back memories and emotions, right?

MIKE NORTON: I’m Irish Catholic, so we’ve got St. Patrick’s Day coming up, so we’ve got corned beef and cabbage.

BRIAN KENNY: That’s not a good one for me.

MIKE NORTON: Any other day of the year, I don’t think I would choose corned beef. It’s called boiled dinner. That doesn’t sound good either.

BRIAN KENNY: Not very good.

MIKE NORTON: Yet on that day, it connects me to my grandmother who’s gone. We really think of food as connecting us to very important things in our lives.

BRIAN KENNY: Let’s talk about elBulli. What are its origins? The case describes this. I thought it was fascinating.

MIKE NORTON: Yeah, it’s like a small seaside. If you think of going to a beach and just having a little restaurant that’s right off the beach.

BRIAN KENNY: Like The Clam Shack.

MIKE NORTON: Exactly. That’s how it started for many, many years. Then this guy, Ferran Adrià came in, and over a period of years and years, it wasn’t an overnight thing, he turned it from a get-a-sandwich thing to an insanely complex 30-course meal with amazing innovation that became the hardest restaurant to get into in the world. He somehow used his own creativity to go from Clam Shack to three stars.

BRIAN KENNY: I think they said it was like a putt-putt. It was a mini golf course, right?

MIKE NORTON: Not high-end, I guess, is what we could say.

BRIAN KENNY: Tell us about Ferran Adrià. How did he learn his craft?

MIKE NORTON: There’s a quote in the case that I love from him, which is when he started to become a chef, what he did, which is what most people in creative industries do is you copy, the first thing you do is copy. There’s this famous dish by this chef, and so you copy it. With music, you try to copy the Clapton solo in order to learn it. He said one day he just had this thing where it was like the translation is to create is not to copy, which is an obvious thing in a way, but also deeply insightful. He just said, “Stop. We’re not going to copy anything. We’re not going to do anything that’s ever been done before, no matter what. By the way, even when we do something, we’re only going to do it one time and then we’re never going to do it again. We’re not even going to copy ourselves.”

BRIAN KENNY: Wow.

MIKE NORTON: “We’re always going to be innovating instead of sticking with what we know.” That’s a very, very tough task to have.

BRIAN KENNY:

It’s a ton of pressure to put on yourself.

MIKE NORTON: Exactly. Like if a band never plays its greatest hits ever, it’s a tough gig to do. But he decided to be, he uses the word, ruthless. Ruthless about creativity and forced them every single year to come up with an entirely new menu.

BRIAN KENNY: What’s the experience he’s trying to create for the patrons who go there?

MIKE NORTON: It’s funny because… It’s outside Barcelona up in the mountains, and so just to get there, first off, you’ve got to get to Barcelona and people would fly from all over the world to do that. Then you take this crazy car ride up in these mountains and there’s no signs, so you get lost, which is like, I’m not an operations professor, but typically, you’d want to have good signage.

BRIAN KENNY: Little direction helps.

MIKE NORTON: Totally. Or a map or something. But you get lost and you’re winding around these roads. You get there, they take you out on this veranda to look over the ocean, then they take you through the kitchen, you get to see the chefs at work. There’s like 20, 30 chefs sometimes working for you, and then you finally get to your table. So, no food has happened yet. You’ve already had an insanely interesting and weird experience. I think for me, that’s what’s so interesting about what he does is even before the food, which is technically why you’re there, they’ve structured this very ritualistic, go off into the mountains like a wise holy man or something, enter this new world, and then the food comes at you.

BRIAN KENNY: What’s the anticipation? I would imagine, so you went and it’s incredibly difficult to get a reservation at this restaurant. What do the numbers look like on that front?

MIKE NORTON: At that time… The restaurant is closed, by the way, unfortunately, if people wanted to go because he decided to do other… He actually said, “I’m not even going to do food anymore. I’m going to be creative another way.” So, he’s ruthless through his whole life. At the time, they estimated 1 or 2 million reservation requests and they served about 8,000 people a year.

So, the demand was high-

BRIAN KENNY: Super high.

MIKE NORTON: … and very, very difficult to get it. In fact, if I’m being honest, one of the reasons we wrote the case was to see if that would help us get a reservation.

BRIAN KENNY: It worked.

MIKE NORTON: At first it did not, actually. We said, “We’re very fancy Harvard Business School professors, we’d like to write a case.” They said, “We’re booked. We’re booked. You can’t come.” Then about a month later they said… I don’t remember the exact date, but they basically said, “You can come if you come on July 4th or July 17th or whatever the date was, or you can never come.” We all went. I mean, that’s the thing where if you can get in there, you go. So, we all changed all of our plans immediately and went over.

BRIAN KENNY: Your anticipation level is already through the roof before you even start the journey to get to the mountain top. Then they’ve created… They’re building the experience up for you as you get there. The kitchen staffed by 30 people, there’s only 80 patrons. So, you’ve almost got a one-to-one ratio for staff to patrons. What happens after that?

MIKE NORTON: So, you sit at the table and they start the food. It’s almost impossible to describe the food. I think the first thing or one of the first things we had was they call it spherical olive. They give you a little spoon with one olive in it, and you’re like, “Really? You know what I mean? One olive? I came all this way with…” You put the olive in your mouth, it explodes. It’s not an olive. Actually, it’s essence of olive that they use a special thing to create a coating around just olive. The coating itself is olive. It’s like eating 1,000 olives at the same time, and it just blows your mind.

The very first thing is the teeniest little thing that already you’ve completely never had anything like it. Then one of the early things that he also gave us was a strawberry. You are like, “Come on, man. I mean, this is kind of expensive. I can get a strawberry-”

BRIAN KENNY: I flew to Barcelona.

MIKE NORTON: Exactly. So, you bite into the strawberry and you taste a gin and tonic, barbecue, and a strawberry.

BRIAN KENNY: Oh, my God.

MIKE NORTON: His idea was that he would give you an entire summer day, like a family barbecue where you have a drink and you eat food, and then you have dessert like fruit. The creation was like, “Can we do that in half a second?” I mean, that’s the innovation and bizarre ideas that they were having. Then they’re able to execute them, which is just extraordinary. I’ve got an olive and a strawberry, and it’s already the greatest meal I’ve ever had in my life. I mean, that’s the level of innovation that they’re able to bring.

BRIAN KENNY: Then they just have to keep topping it with the next thing that they do, which sounds like an impossible task. Then they redo it all the next day for the next group of people coming up.

MIKE NORTON: That’s right. He got very famous for making foam out of all things like carrot foam, essence of carrot in a foam. You just eat, it disappear on your tongue. People would go and say, “Give me the foam. I want the foam. That’s the greatest hit.” He said, “There’s no foam. No foam. No more foam here. Sorry. You can’t have any foam.”

BRIAN KENNY: No foam for you.

MIKE NORTON: Exactly. He literally just would cut it no matter what, and try something new.

BRIAN KENNY: You have to be an adventurous food eater, I would think. So, you don’t go there and say, “No, I’m going to pass on the olive.” I mean, you basically eat what’s put in front of you.

MIKE NORTON: I went with my wife, my then girlfriend who has a mild shellfish allergy, which may or may not be real. It’s not the place where you push the dish away and don’t eat the food. So, what she would do is when the servers weren’t looking after I ate mine, she would switch her plate with mine and I’d eat hers as well. Yes, it is a-

BRIAN KENNY: Double the experience.

MIKE NORTON: Exactly. I mean, they’re standing over you, “Sip that, take that bite, and then do that.” You’re really going along with their vision of your ride.

BRIAN KENNY: So, they’re giving you instructions on how to consume the food.

MIKE NORTON: Absolutely. They’re really right on you. They’ve really thought it all through that, “If you drink this before that, that’s what you need to do because we’ve structured the flavors such that this interacts with that. If you do it in the other order, you might miss something.” He talks about it almost as a movie as well. It’s like scene after scene all connected to each other in some way.

BRIAN KENNY: Do you have insight into how they’re able to do this and how they’re able to pull it off? Where do they get their inspirations from?

MIKE NORTON: One thing they do is, unlike many other food services is they closed for half the year, every year, which partly relates to why they weren’t making a lot of money. Because it’s hard to only be open half the year. They were basically saying, “We’re going to close entirely and start from scratch.” They would just go around the world and try to find things. Literally, there’s a great video where… I forget which vegetable they find. It’s a Japanese vegetable that they hadn’t used before, and they spend a week doing everything you could possibly do to this vegetable, cutting it like this, broiling it, steaming it, whatever the thing they’re doing. They’re just testing. They’re truly using almost like a rigorous scientific method where they’re carefully controlling for every factor. Then they write everything down. They had a huge encyclopedia, they called it the Bullipedia, for all of the things that they learned about all these foods. They really had to do it that way in order to say, “You know what, we didn’t know is if you heat this to exactly 302 degrees, what happens is that.

BRIAN KENNY: It’s amazing.

MIKE NORTON:

Then they would say, “Keep that. That’s going on the menu next year.”

BRIAN KENNY: This is structured creativity. This isn’t just like, “Woo, we’re going to go out there and try things.” I mean, they’re taking an approach to this. There is a process that they’re following.

MIKE NORTON: For sure. In the end, it just seems like magic, like most amazingly creative things. Once you receive it, it’s just extraordinary. Then often when you look in the background, creative people are working really, really hard with lots of failures in order to eventually get something that really is truly innovative.

BRIAN KENNY: Right. The chef visited the HBS classroom. I’m just curious about how that was, what was the interaction with the students like?

MIKE NORTON: It was extraordinary. One of the things that he… I’ve had many, many guests in the HBS classroom over the years, of course. So have all of us. He’s the only guest who are… He was going to come to two classes the first time he came to campus. After the first class, he came over to me through a translator and said, “What’s the deal with the boards?” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Well, you’re pushing them up. You’re dragging them down. You’re writing all over.”

BRIAN KENNY: For our listeners’ benefit, they may not have seen the classroom. We literally have, is it nine blackboards that are all movable, spread across the front of the room, and by the end of a class, those are typically filled with notes from the teacher.

MIKE NORTON: That’s right. We love to do a very dramatic push the board up to reveal something, the board underneath it had on it. He said, “What’s the deal with the boards?” I said, “Well, we try to use them to structure the conversation, make sure we’re having the discussion we want to have.” I showed him my teaching plan, which had boards like little squares drawn on my teaching plan saying what was going to go on each board. So, he looked at it and he said, “We need to use this in the restaurant.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “We need to make menus. Where what happens is you push them up and down and reveal things over time, over the meal, and we can surprise you that way.” As I said, many, many guests in the classroom. He’s the only one who said, “Let me think about taking the vertical board and turning it into a horizontal thing with food on it where we use the mystery and surprise. That’s where he was always heading.

BRIAN KENNY: His brain is always going.

MIKE NORTON: Exactly.

BRIAN KENNY: Yeah. What was his interaction with the students like?

MIKE NORTON: They loved him because he was very direct and he was very, I’m going to say critical, where he was saying, “Yes, it’s important to make money, of course, but what’s really important is to be creative. So, whatever you do, find a way to be creative in your life.” I think that was… It’s valuable for me to hear too, and also I think for them to hear as well.

BRIAN KENNY: Let’s think about your book now in the context of the chef and El Bulli. What lessons can we glean from his approach to doing things?

MIKE NORTON: If you think about food, we talked about saying cheers with glasses and things like that. We can use food and drink, and we do use food and drink for everything in our lives. Weddings and funerals and birthdays. We have a birthday cake where we make a cake, we frost it very carefully, so it looks beautiful. Then we stick wax candles and light them on fire. So the wax drips on the cake, and then somebody blows all over the cake, all the… You know what I mean? When you break it down like that, it’s an insane thing to do.

BRIAN KENNY: It’s part of the ritual.

MIKE NORTON: Part of the ritual. We all sing this tuneless song and everyone sings it in their own key. It doesn’t sound good even, you know what I mean? It doesn’t make any sense, but of course, it’s huge. Even the number of candles tells us we went from that age to that age. You can really think about the most basic things, adding meaning to them, adding emotion to them, and having people have a much better experience as a result.

BRIAN KENNY: Do rituals make us perform better? I mean, if you have a ritual that you do, does it enhance the way that you approach something?

MIKE NORTON: If you look at any athlete, any professional athlete or any musician or anybody who has to bring it in the moment that, you’ll find that almost all of them have not just a tiny ritual, but an incredibly elaborate ritual that they engage in. Serena Williams, I think she bounces the ball five times before her first serve and two times before her second.

BRIAN KENNY: Wow.

MIKE NORTON: I know it’s a different number each time. Nadal has insane things that he does with his clothing and his headband and everything like that. So, we do see in moments of stress, performers bring it. It all says things like, I know I don’t need to do it, but when I do it, I feel like I’m ready to go. We do those things too. I don’t bounce the ball 50 times before I start teaching, obviously. If you say, do you do anything before a stressful meeting, people say, “You know what I do? I go in the bathroom and I talk to myself in the mirror.” Very, very common actually. You sneak into the bathroom, make sure nobody else is in there, and then say to yourself in the mirror, “You’ve got this, you can do this.”

So even though we’re not Nadal or Serena Williams, many of us also bring the same things to bear. When we’re under stress, we try to bring a little bit of ritual.

BRIAN KENNY: Right. We know that there are faculty here who have… I’m thinking of Jan Rivkin, for instance, with his colored chalk. There are faculty who are famous for the things that they do before they come out. Because teaching a case at Harvard Business School is a performance of sorts.

MIKE NORTON: Completely. I actually realized studying rituals is one of these things where I started doing it at a remove, like I’m a scientist and I’ll study the humans. Then I realized I’m doing them all the time. I have a teaching ritual, which is I always write… My teaching plan is exactly what we’re going to do in class. Always write it on yellow-lined paper, yellow. If it’s on white, I can do it, but I don’t like it.

BRIAN KENNY: Interesting.

MIKE NORTON: It’s always in the same black leather binder that my dad gave me 25 years ago. Every MBA class I’ve taught at HBS has been exactly that. I didn’t even realize it until I started studying rituals, and I just started looking at myself saying, “Oh, my God, I’m doing this stuff all the time.”

BRIAN KENNY: Are rituals different than habits?

MIKE NORTON: They are. I think habits are often the thing that we need to get done. We need to go for a run. We need to engage. We need to teach our class, for example. We have to do it. Rituals are often something that we add to change our emotions or change the meaning of it. I don’t need yellow-lined paper, Serena Williams doesn’t need to bounce the ball five times. But when we do those things, it changes it from just bouncing a ball or writing on paper to something that’s more meaningful that really affects our emotions. So, I think we do use rituals for lots of emotional tasks in our lives.

BRIAN KENNY: Okay. Let’s go back to Chef Adrià for a minute again. Because I’m curious you mentioned the way he’s thinking about the chalkboards, which is amazing. Does his creative approach translate to other endeavors?

MIKE NORTON: In his life or… He has tried-

BRIAN KENNY: Or even in our lives.

MIKE NORTON: He gives himself challenges like, “Let’s reinvent the potato chip.” He’ll just pick things and see if they can reinvent it. He actually now is working on trying to write a book that is about being creative, some tips on being creative from someone who’s incredibly creative. It turns out… Many creative people have this struggle, it is hard to articulate exactly. You can say “follow this process”, but there’s often something else in there that is very difficult for us. Someone asked him, “How do you find such talented chefs to work for you?” Because many of the chefs who worked in that restaurant then went on to start their own restaurants that were successful.

They said, “How did you find these talented people?” He said, “You have to understand, people think that Steve Jobs is the most creative person in the world because he made a product that billions of people wanted.” This was an example he said, “Someone who’s studying fruit flies in a laboratory can be more creative than Steve Jobs. It’s just that nobody cares.” But he said, “I’m looking not for the end result. I’m looking for the creativity in the person,” which means he’s looking in very different places for creativity because he’s saying, “Do you have the spark or not? Not: have you made something that people were interested in?”

BRIAN KENNY: Right. Of course. Which I guess leads to another question, which is are there examples that you can think of where companies have tried to harness that creativity to create an experience for their customers that’s akin to maybe not as intense as to what you experienced at El Bulli, but akin to that?

MIKE NORTON: Yes. Our daughter is eight years old, and so that’s prime Disney age. So if you have been to Disney or you’ve ever entered the park, extraordinarily-

BRIAN KENNY: I’m a fan.

MIKE NORTON: People have very different feelings about Disney, et cetera, but just from a standpoint of bringing you into an experience and changing how you’re thinking and feeling, extraordinary how they pull people in, and really for kids, it is actually feels magical to them.

BRIAN KENNY: Can managers bring this out in their employees? Is there a way to pull that creativity out of people? Are people just locked in their day-to-day, “I got to get this thing done, so stop trying to make me be creative”?

MIKE NORTON: One thing that I do whenever I teach this case, which is very, very fun. We’ll have the regular case discussion, et cetera. Then I’ll often do a second session where I say, “Okay, now you be Ferran Adrià.” I’ll give them a task… Sometimes we’ll do fast food. I’ll say, “You redesign the Happy Meal, you redesign the milkshake, you redesign the drive-through in the way that Ferran Adrià would do it.” They’ve read a case and they’ve chatted about this guy, but he’s so creative that they can bring it to it. He deconstructs things and builds them back up in interesting ways, and they’re able just like that to take on his perspective. They come up with all amazing, amazing ideas. The hamburger is actually the milkshake, for example-

BRIAN KENNY: I’m trying to wrap my brain around that.

MIKE NORTON: … people came up with. Another one was, this sticks out so much, but it was the drive-through what you would do is you would pick your cow. Not feasible, and yet you see the creativity. You know what I mean? You really are starting to think just very broadly. I think what’s important about that is none of the students work in that industry, but you can give them these creative tasks and start to bring the creativity out. That I think is very important. It’s not just like, “We have this specific business problem. Let’s be creative about it.” You foster a culture of let’s be creative about any random thing that’s in the environment and then let’s bring some of that to our business.

BRIAN KENNY: I love it because it almost takes the pressure off you. If you were to do that with your team, for instance, and you have them focus on something that’s got nothing to do with your business, it’s a way of maybe turning that switch on that’s got a little bit less pressure associated with it.

MIKE NORTON: We do in our lab group, which we call very creatively “nerd lab” here at HBS with faculty and the Ph.D. Students we work with. We’ll often do things like put Beatles’ songs titles in a hat, and you have to pull one out, and you have five minutes to create a research project based on the title. They’re not going to happen. The idea is not now go do the project. Think of, “Can’t Buy Me Love.” You can think about research.

BRIAN KENNY: 100%.

MIKE NORTON: Exactly. We do that in order to just start… You can look anywhere for an idea in the world and just get in the habit of trying to have ideas and be creative. Then hopefully, it eventually translate to the thing you actually need to do for work.

BRIAN KENNY: Yeah. Mike, this has been a great conversation as I knew it would be. Well, I’m asking one last question, which is what lessons do you think listeners can glean from Adrià’s approach at elBulli?

MIKE NORTON: I think he helps us remember to savor more than anything else. I think when we are eating and drinking or doing anything in life, it can just be eating and drinking or it can be something that connects us to other people, connects us to our family, to our past, fills us with excitement. I think he reminded me at least that there’s a lot of potential in technically boring everyday things. Like you got to have lunch. You can build more into them and I think get more enjoyment out of them.

BRIAN KENNY: I guess does that also relate to the way that you can create experiences for your customers that might not otherwise have the same emotional impact?

MIKE NORTON: Exactly. I think of the word delighting. Delightful or delighting someone is a wonderful. We don’t experience delight very often in our lives. Through our kids sometimes we experience… We’re delighted by our kids. But great marketers actually create experiences that delight us. It’s a wonderful emotion that we don’t get enough of.

BRIAN KENNY: Yeah, I love that. The book, I’m going to say the title one more time is The Ritual Effect: From Habit to Ritual, Harness the Surprising Power of Everyday Actions. Mike Norton, thanks for joining me on Cold Call.

MIKE NORTON: Thanks so much, Brian.

BRIAN KENNY: If you enjoy Cold Call, you might like our other podcasts After Hours, Climate Rising, Deep Purpose, IdeaCast, Managing the Future of Work, Skydeck, and Women at Work. Find them on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you listen. If you could take a minute to rate and review us, we’d be grateful. If you have any suggestions or just want to say hello, we want to hear from you, email us at coldcall@hbs.edu. Thanks again for joining us. I’m your host Brian Kenny, and you’ve been listening to Cold Call, an official podcast of Harvard Business School and part of the HBR Podcast Network.



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