To Achieve Big Goals, Become A Pattern Thinker (Or, How The Cool Ranch Dorito Was Born)

When faced with trying to accomplish a big goal, one of the most daunting questions is: Where do I start?  "Standing on the shoulders of giants" is another way of saying you don’t have to start from scratch and you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. In business, we sometimes get too caught up in the idea that we need to be different, that we need to innovate. Of course we need to distinguish ourselves from the competition, but that does not mean we can’t borrow good ideas, make them our own, and do an even better job of executing them.

Use Pattern Thinking

Pattern thinking, where you look at what’s working for someone else and apply it to your own situation, is one of the best ways to make big things happen for you and your team. Combining the knowledge of others with what you know about your brand and industry can lead to results that are more than just incremental improvements, they can help you take a giant leap forward.

One example of this happened early in my career when I was head of the Frito-Lay account, which included Nacho Cheese Doritos, at my ad agency. One day I decided to take my team to the grocery store to look around and get some ideas. What was surprising was how much time we spent, not by the snack foods, but in the salad dressing aisle. Ranch dressing was far and away the best seller in the category at the time. That gave my team and me an idea: Would ranch dressing work as a chip flavor?

We went to Frito-Lay with the concept, but then it became a matter of how to position it. So I looked at what had worked for Nacho Cheese Doritos. They had applied a unique image—nacho—to a known quantity—cheese—to make a product that was both exciting and appealing at the same time. So I asked, "How can we do the same thing for our ranch-dressing-flavored tortilla chip? How can we give a bit of uniqueness to the known quantity, which was ranch dressing?" That eventually led to Cool Ranch Doritos, which is now one of Frito-Lay’s biggest-selling and most profitable products.

Pattern thinking requires that you keep your eyes open and actively seek out new ideas wherever you can find them. And you won’t truly have your eyes open unless you have enough humility to admit that the best ideas aren’t always going to come from you.

Become a Know-How Junkie

In 1997, PepsiCo spun off KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell, thereby forming Yum! Brands (formerly Tricon Global Restaurants). The restaurant business had been struggling, which was a major reason why PepsiCo leaders thought they’d do better if they spun us off. But in my mind, that gave us the opportunity for what I characterized as a "gigantic do-over."   

To take advantage of our unique position of being a brand-new public company made up of well-established brands, we did a best-practice tour of some of the most successful companies around at the time in order to take inspiration from them and borrow any good ideas we could find. We visited seven companies in all—GE, Walmart, Home Depot, Southwest Airlines, Target, Coke, and UPS—and then came back and crystallized what we’d learned into five things that we called our "Dynasty Drivers." These were the things that we believed would make us an enduringly great company and included: A Company Where Everyone Makes a Difference; Customer and Sales Mania; Competitive Brand Differentiation; Continuity in People and Process; and Consistency in Results.

That early best-practices tour gave our company a base of knowledge and a focus that we have been building on ever since. It really reinforced the idea in our company that, for any problem we need to solve, learning all we can about it is the best place to start. There is always more to know, and when people ask me what I look for when hiring someone, an avid learner tops the list. People who are avid learners love what they do and seek out know-how wherever they can find it, which makes them a whole lot smarter and their results a whole lot better.

Here are four tactics for being a better know-how junkie:

1. Eliminate "not invented here."  The phrase "not invented here" refers to an unwillingness to adopt something because it didn’t originate with you. As leader, it’s your job to make sure that nothing gets in the way of a good idea, no matter where it comes from.  

2. Act like you own the place.  I don’t mean that you should act like you own the place in terms of your ego, but more in terms of how you think about the business. If you owned the company where you work, you’d be concerned with all aspects of it. You wouldn’t just think about your own role or your own department; you’d think about the total picture. Adopting this attitude will force you to look at and learn about more aspects of the business, which will give you a broader perspective. It will also demonstrate to others your potential for taking on more responsibility. 

3. Keep your big goal top-of-mind.  In the information age, knowledge is everywhere, so you have to be strategic about it. Have you ever noticed that when you decide which car you want to buy, you suddenly see that car everywhere you go? Well, that’s not because everyone has the same car; it’s because identifying what you want gives your brain a focus and a filter. You have to do the same for your Big Goal. Keep your antennae up and your Big Goal top-of-mind, and you will suddenly see ideas for how to reach it everywhere you look. 

4. Seek out knowledge holders and sources.  Be proactive about gaining knowledge by searching for expertise. Who knows something about what you’re working on? Go talk to those people. You’d be amazed how many doors you can open just by telling people you’d like to learn from them. In addition, where can you find information about what you’re working on? Go look up those sources, whether they are case studies, books, business magazines or what have you. 

Being open to and on the lookout for good ideas yourself is only half that battle. You have to position yourself so that good ideas can come to you. That means creating an atmosphere in which the people around you feel comfortable speaking up and know that there is a benefit in doing so. If you want to take people with you and accomplish your Big Goal more efficiently and effectively, you need to learn to see every person and every experience as an opportunity to expand your knowledge base.

As Sir Isaac Newton once said, "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."  I love that quote and wholeheartedly agree, but I would go one more: You will see even further if you stand on the giants’ shoulders and take pride in crediting and thanking them for the view.

David Novak is the chairman and CEO of Yum! Brands, Inc.; this article is adapted from his new book, TAKING PEOPLE WITH YOU: The Only Way to Make BIG Things Happen.

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[Image: Flickr user Vishal Patel]

Add New Comment


  • Garyjohnsusmc

    Why does yum brands, moreover, Dave Novak, show no interest in breaking federal law? Also, why does Dave feel the need to neglect individuals he, and his company have wronged?

    Dave can answer me directly .... If he has the deceny and fortitude ... Which I promise, he does not

  • Peter McNally

    Great article David! YUM is one of the best managed companies, and by the way, creating jobs around the world, which seems pretty darn responsible to me.

  • Martha Wagner

    I heard Novak interviewed on NPR last week about the success of Yum Brands, saying that the world was its oyster for spreading its pizza, fried chicken and tacos anywhere it saw an opportunity. I find this  to be an incredibly common but highly irresponsible business model. People around the world do not need more junk food, more empty calories sold at higher prices than local food.

  • Genevieve DeGuzman

    What an interesting article. I worked on a book project last year (Working in the UnOffice, Night Owls Press) on the movement known as 'coworking'-- where startups, small businesses and indie workers work alongside each other in a shared space. What we found in the over 50 people we interviewed was exactly what Novak was saying in point 4: "Seek out knowledge holders and sources".

    Collaborative working is changing the face of entrepreneurship. As Novak put it, "Being open to and on the lookout for good ideas yourself is only half
    that battle. You have to position yourself so that good ideas can come
    to you." I can't think of a better place to grow and cultivate ideas than in the collaborative workspaces of coworking spaces popping up around the country.

  • Amanda Jones

    I really enjoyed this article. I'm new to my tech based nonprofit organization NTEN, and sometimes, I think I get a little too excited. I may try to "reinvent the wheel" too much. I'm going to spend some time looking at the services we already provide, and ways to take things that are proven, and spin them into new proven programs.

    Thanks so much!

  • Erle Dardick

    Keith; I am not sure that your comments are relevant to David's great advice in this article. This article is about leadership and provides some great insights. As to the state of the fast food industry and it's practices, well, that discussion might be relevant in another venue. I can tell you, that being in the same industry as David, there is a movement towards menu changes and better practices. But that will be dictated by the American consumer who's demands are changing the market conditions.

    As that happens, you will see great leaders like David Novak adjust to those demands using the strategies that he is putting forward as he writes. If he doesn't, his company will go out of business.

    While I don't disagree with your slant on the fast food business, leaders like David have simply inherited old legacy infrastructure, responded to a powerful franchise community and built an impressive business.

    As generations have passed, and market conditions have changed over decades, I am betting that his team will respond towards healthier food and better practices in the near future. He is a survivor entrepreneur and the change is taking place.

    His challenge is that when you are the leader of such a large franchise system, change takes time. I have read all of David's writing, and in my opinion, he continues to be a generous and thoughtful CEO.

    Please do not judge him on the past, but rather educate yourself as to the things that Yum is doing to shift its business towards a more responsible organization. I am betting that David will come out winning with healthier food, more sustainable practices and other great initiatives that we have never seen in the fast food business because the market conditions are changing and as a great leader, he will respond.

    My opinion.

  • Dara Barwick

    Very interesting how the Cool Ranch Dorito began! And, I agree whole-heartedly with your comment, "As leader, it’s your job to make sure that nothing gets in the way of a good idea, no matter where it comes from." When so-called leaders are not willing to listen to others, they are diminishing their ability to lead. Thanks for sharing!

  • David Kaiser, PhD

    Looking for what's working outside your industry / niche, and then bringing that idea back home can be a great way to leverage someone else's success without becoming a copycat. 

    David Kaiser, PhDExecutive Coach for Productivity

  • David Kaiser, PhD

    Looking for what's working outside your industry / niche, and then bringing that idea back home can be a great way to leverage someone else's success without becoming a copycat. 

    David Kaiser, PhDExecutive Coach for Productivitywww.DarkMatterCons...

  • Keith G

    I find it difficult to take advice from someone whose expertise is selling junk food, and that the 'Yum! Brands' brands are horrendous. I'm a little sad every time I see a swooshy purple Taco Bell, with a Pizza Hut logo under it because they sell 5 crossover menu items. And KFC's animal welfare practices are notoriously bad. I mean these are basically the three worst restaurant chains in America.

    I'm a guy who loves to eat Taco Bell, but I much prefer the FastCo articles about how to improve the world, rather than fill it with ugly fast food restaurants that sell unhealthy and inhumane food.

  • Joe Winpisinger

    This is a great article. I love the Doritios story. Steven B. Johnson has a book out that shows that innovation does not happen in isolation but when the right ideas and people connect.  In it he goes through history and proves his case by citing numerous historical examples. This is not another era or short term trend. We are at the ending of one 500 year era of human history and embarking on a new one. In other words, someone or something is going to come along shortly that totally changes the game, not just the play book or plays!!!

  • Michael Martel

    Great article. Like the concept of pattern thinking, sort of like the old marketing concept of swipe and deploy - find out what's working for others, change it a bit and use it.  I also like the know-how junkie.  Keep the target in mind, believe you deserve it, settle for nothing less, and develop a cadre of support personal.  Thanks.