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‘The best thing since sliced bread…..’

People often use this phrase when talking about an innovation and the impact they hope it will have.  But what’s the story behind sliced bread – and does it have any useful lessons for innovation managers today?

As you butter your toast over breakfast you might spare a thought for Otto Rohwedder. Not exactly a household name but his innovation – sliced bread – has certainly become one. But it wasn’t always that way – although it recently celebrated its hundredth birthday sliced bread didn’t get off to the easiest start in life.

Otto had thought long and hard about the possibilities of pre-sliced bread – after all slicing a load with a knife took time and effort, and if the loaf was stale and the knife blunt it could even be dangerous. So in principle people might value a more convenient alternative.

But exploiting this potential posed some big problems at the technical level. Once it’s sliced bread quickly becomes hard so an early challenge was finding ways to keep the slices pressed together to preserve their softness. He experimented with all sorts of ingenious solutions (like holding the bread together with hatpins or rubber bands) but these weren’t always practical. And then in 1917 disaster struck – his warehouse burned down taking his prototype machine and all the blueprints with it.

Down but not out he set about recreating his work and ten years later filed a patent on his improved machine (which amongst other features solved the freshness problem by wrapping the sliced loaf in waxed paper). He set up the Mac-Roh Company to launch his great idea, only to see it arrive with more of a whimper than a bang. The bakers to whom he tried to sell it were underwhelmed. They thought the machine too complex for everyday production, it was bulky and took up precious space – and they weren’t convinced of the need anyway. Teetering close to the edge of bankruptcy he persuaded a local baker, Frank Bench, to invest and install the first machine.

On July 7, 1928, the first loaf of commercially sliced bread was produced by the Chillicothe Baking Company of Missouri and sold under the brand name Kleen Maid. And while bakers had been sceptical of the benefits local families in the mid-West were much more enthusiastic. As a review in the local newspaper (the Constitution Tribune) put it:

“So neat and precise are the slices, and so definitely better than anyone could possibly slice by hand with a bread knife that one realizes instantly that here is a refinement that will receive a hearty and permanent welcome.

Within two weeks bread sales from the bakery had increased by 2000%! The idea began to take off across the country and two years later the New York-based Continental Baking Company began using Rohwedder’s machines to build an entire business around sliced bread. Their product – Wonder Bread – (and the accompanying marketing campaign) helped lift awareness to a high level. By 1933 almost every bakery in the USA had a slicing machine and 80% of the bread produced in America was sliced.

Sliced bread became such an important part of US household life that when, during the war years, the government sought to ‘ban’ it as a way of conserving paper it prompted an impassioned letter to the New York Times:

“I should like to let you know how important sliced bread is to the morale and saneness of a household. My husband and four children are all in a rush during and after breakfast. Without ready-sliced bread I must do the slicing for toast—two pieces for each one—that’s ten. For their lunches I must cut by hand at least twenty slices, for two sandwiches apiece. Afterward I make my own toast. Twenty-two slices of bread to be cut in a hurry!”

Within a month the ban was lifted and sliced bread remained a core feature of household life, spreading its way around the world.

All very interesting – but what’s it got to do with innovation? Plenty – as any aspiring entrepreneur will recognise. Think of the situation.

You’ve finally made it. After months of struggle, wrestling with a thousand and one technical problems, balancing the resources you need, juggling the plates. Finally you get to launch. You could be forgiven for thinking you’ve earned the right to relax, step back, perhaps hold back on opening the champagne but at least enjoy the sense of achievement. You’ve created something, moved it from the gleam in the eye to a reality.

Except that the journey isn’t over – you’re only halfway there. The next big challenge is moving to scale – persuading others to adopt your great new thing. And that can be where the trouble starts.

Diffusion to scale is one of the thorniest problems in innovation – whether we’re talking about a start-up looking to grow, or an established business trying to launch a new product. (It’s worth reminding ourselves that most new product ideas fail and one of the big hurdles at which they fall is the move from launch to widespread adoption).

And it’s as true of process innovations as products and services – new methods and techniques are often very slow to spread. Think of the quality ‘revolution’ which characterised manufacturing in the 20th century – the original ideas were developed and proved way back in the 1920s but it wasn’t until fifty years later that their impact began to be seen in Japan and twenty years after that before they became commonplace around the world.

It’s the same with social innovation – the world is full of wonderfully big-hearted people who develop something which makes the world a better place in some way. The trouble is that for most of these the idea never spreads. In the world of humanitarian innovation this gap is particularly acute; despite urgent needs most innovations fail to make it beyond successful pilot stages.

And it’s at the heart of ‘change management’ – essentially an innovation diffusing to an internal market. Getting people to accept new techniques, technology, working patterns isn’t always easy. It may not be as extreme as the early Luddites who smashed the incoming new machines as a protest in their factory but resistance to change can take many forms. The road to successful implementation is paved with the wreckage of failed attempts.

So understanding what influences adoption and diffusion would probably be helpful. The good news is that we have a wealth of research to draw upon – and if we’re smart we can reverse engineer some of those findings to try and stack the deck in our favour.

Let’s start with some facts. First, diffusion isn’t instantaneous – even wildly successful new things take a finite amount of time to spread. It follows an S-curve – a pattern easily explained by thinking about the process. First a few adopt – perhaps they’re the only ones that know about it or they have a higher tendency towards taking risks. Whatever they are followed by others and the groundswell begins to build. Eventually we’re left with a flattening slope as we approach 100% adoption. Or not – many innovations fail.

Second, diffusion isn’t about a predictable rate of change, a standard time-based process. The slope of the S-curve depends on many factors – and we can use our understanding of these to help give our innovation a better chance of successfully diffusing.

At this point it helps to turn to the work of one man – Everett Rogers. He didn’t invent diffusion studies – people had been working on the question for at least a hundred years. But what Rogers did was to study many different kinds of innovation and look for patterns. And being a sociologist his model had a lot to do with people and the way they interact. He saw diffusion in terms of a communication – an innovation (the message) being transmitted from a source (the innovator) to a receiver (the adopter) and then he looked at the different factors which might influence that process.

Using this powerful framework helps us understand why Otto’s sliced bread innovation spread so quickly. One important set of influences on adoption concerns how we perceive the new thing – the ‘message’ in Rogers’ model. Bakers weren’t very impressed – they saw little ‘relative advantage’ to the new idea, But the families of Chillicothe loved the convenience – no knife needed, no crumbs, just fresh bread fast and easy.

These benefits were clear to see – and the observability effect meant that word of mouth quickly accelerated interest in the novelty. This underlines Rogers’ belief that diffusion is very much a social communication process. And there’s not a lot of risk attached to buying a loaf of bread – so the idea of ‘trialability’ helped speed adoption.

Complexity is another factor – if people see the new thing as too complicated they are unlikely to adopt. Otto worked through many prototypes around keeping the bread fresh, realising that using pins or rubber bands would be too fiddly. In the end the (apparently) simple solution of using waxed paper helped make the presentation of the final product as something simple and easy to use. But he also stressed the similarity to other familiar household items – after all people were already comfortable with the idea of pre-ground coffee or sliced bacon.

A big rock on which many innovations founder is that they don’t fit easily into the world of the adopter. Otto understood this idea of what Rogers called ‘compatibility’ – and he made sure he did his research carefully. His bread wasn’t simply the result of an idea dreamed up in the shower; he’d used a questionnaire survey of 30,000 housewives to establish what they would want in a sliced loaf. This gave him key information – for example what were the features people associated with a ‘fresh-baked’ loaf and, crucially, the exact thickness of bread they would prefer.

Innovations also change as they diffuse, building on lessons learned, contributing ideas to help modify them and improve their acceptability. This process of ‘inno-fusion’ was certainly at work with sliced bread with bakers contributing their own improvements and modifications. For example the second machine installed was in St Louis where Gustav Papendick solved the problem of keeping the slices together long enough to allow the loaves to be wrapped. Using a cardboard tray enabled him to use a mechanized wrapping machine which significantly increased speed- a useful thing given what quickly became significant demand for sliced bread.

Otto also timed his innovation well – people’s lives were becoming increasingly stressed and the idea of convenience foods was beginning to take off. Faith in industrialised products was high, and it’s not surprising that this idea was born in the USA, a place where there was considerable enthusiasm for new gadgets

So next time you unwrap your sandwiches you might also find some food for thought in there. Whether you’re trying to launch your new product or service, or speed the introduction of a new piece of process technology or guide through a new organization structure, there are probably several crumbs of value in looking at diffusion theory.

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