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What a pizza party taught me about team innovation

Enough time has passed for me to share this story with you (or for my future self). I often ponder the implications of introducing change to people, and why it is met with so much resistance. It took a pizza party to help me develop a plan.

A few months ago our team of 15 (I am aware this is a large team, flying directly in the face of Jeff Bezo’s two pizza rule) decided to have a pizza party. Perhaps the simplest, easiest, and most common form of “party,” no one expected any drama. A team member took responsibility for ordering the pizzas, and decided to use a coupon and get two topping pizzas at a special rate. It took a good half hour to gather dietary restrictions, good and bad toppings, and multiple opinions, before a proposed order was sent to the rest of the team for approval. Of course, by this time, everyone was over it and just wanted pizza, so the order went through.

At lunch, we dug in to the vast variety of pizzas available. Aside from the standard pepperoni and cheese pizzas (which there were few), we had a smorgasbord of options – hot pepper and feta, green pepper and red onion, alfredo sauce instead of marinara, cheddar cheese and pepperoni – not to mention the flavored crusts (a big deal in Michigan) and standard/deep dish options. Even in my pizza party days in a college dorm, where 30 or so RAs were fed, had I ever seen such a variety of different pizza options. This was a non-standard pizza party, almost like a treasure hunt to discover which pizzas were popular and which were not.

Being towards the end of the line, I do not think I even reached for a plate before the vocal complaints started rolling in. A couple of voices united to express distaste in the selection of choices. Why is there cheddar on a pizza? Alfredo sauce? You don’t do alfredo sauce in a group. The vegetarian option was lackluster. On and on it went. At first I felt sorry, no matter who does it ordering food to satisfy everyone is difficult.

Through this experience, I made the following observations:

1. The vocal distaste came from a very small few. This principle seems to hold its own no matter what realm you discuss. Oftentimes the things you hear repeatedly come from a few, and do not represent the majority. If you are trying to implement something new, the people that choose to speak out (and become very intense about it) will most likely not represent the majority opinion, even if they make that case. I have seen enough indifference in the vast majority of people to know that such opinions – while valid and should be taken into account – should not discourage a person from thinking he/she is a failure.

2. Too many people = too many opinions = hard to get moving. If we had a smaller team to order pizza for (2 pizzas right?), then this would not have been as complicated an issue. Maybe do different toppings on half the pizzas to include variety, but when juggling fifteen different opinions, it will be midnight before the pizza is ordered. Implementing change is much easier in smaller groups – where the risk is lower and the opinions are fewer. Use the changes implemented in one area to spread to other areas. This point does not say top down approaches are bad, or trying to change everyone simultaneously is unwise, rather it acknowledges that change faces greater inertia with larger groups of people.

3. Change will be welcomed – by some. Unless your proposed change is an utter failure, if it falls between mediocre to excellent, chances are there were some that appreciated it. For example, I heard a few comments (amongst the noise) where a person never considered alfredo for a pizza, and now campaigns for it. Different combinations of non-standard toppings led to new horizons for some. These observations proved encouraging as the pizza party was not an entire failure, it allowed some to try something new, and in turn discover something about their tastebuds.

4. Preserve the standard – but introduce small changes if possible. One individual made a valid point. For groups of people, it is always a good idea to take the standard route. Cheese, pepperoni, and meat lovers (plus a vegetarian one for me!) are “safe” and will accomplish the job of filling bellies. While we had six or so different pizzas out of a total eight, perhaps this instance the variation went too far. Maybe a ratio favoring the more standard options with a few “innovative flavors” would have reduced some of the viciousness. I am not sure. Not all change should be implemented in this manner. For adopting agile, introducing small changes will hinder a team’s understanding of agile as a whole and bring discouragement sooner than expected. That being said, if the change is iterative, create a small space for innovation – small enough to slip under the radar, but introduce new concepts.

5. Do not give up. The team now keeps said individual far away from group ordering, but I disagree. For a low risk activity such as pizza, I do not think this is the best approach. But do not be discouraged and accept the stubbornness! Behavioral change takes time. I have heard there are three groups of people when it comes to making changes: the movers, movables, and immovables. Keep working with the movers, let the movables follow, and allow the immovables to decide whether to hop on the bus or be left behind. We change as humans, and as more knowledge and maturity arrive in a collective understanding, we would do well to continuously improve ourselves and our dynamics. We are adaptable creatures after all!

I enjoyed my vegetarian pizza, and I’m grateful for the experience of learning and observing people. Keep implementing meaningful change!