INsight/ The Other Side

Ubud, 17 May 2017 — Are traditions holding you back? Leaders learn to build on traditions and then go beyond to create new excellence. 

Last week I listened to three international chefs as they talked about transforming traditions. The session was part of the Ubud Food Festival and the discussion was expertly facilitated by Jed Doble, the Philippine food writer of FoodieS.

We discovered how three well-known chefs, Kevin Cherkas, Chele González and Joannès Rivière had all chosen to live and work in a country other than their own.

Kevin moved from Canada to set up Cuca Flavor restaurant in Bali, Indonesia. Chele from Spain created Gallery VASK in Manila in the Philippines. And Joannès from France landed in Siem Reap in Cambodia where he founded Cuisine Wat Damnak close to a well-known Buddhist temple.

What was their experience as they set out to create new culinary dishes in their adopted countries? What was their take on local delicacies and traditions when seen from the other side?

I listened keenly to their answers.

It turned out that all three chefs shared a similar experience, that they were able to invent new dishes by going beyond the boundaries of local conventions. Coming from the other side to the local culture and traditions that fascinated them so intensely, they were also oblivious to the inbuilt limitations of those traditions that prevented local restaurateurs from innovating.

The more they discovered about the traditions of the local cuisine, the more they felt stimulated to venture across these boundaries and discover what could be created beyond them. "Why not we do it this or that way?" was a question they often asked their local teammates and advisers.

In the audience, we learned from their discussion how truly creative new dishes emerged to excite the palates of dining guests, as these chefs and their teams broke through walls of tradition and built new bridges to fuse local culture with new ideas.

"Why not?" was also asked by entrepreneur Aaron Fishman when he discovered that cashew nuts grown by local communities in Bali's poorest districts were sent abroad for processing. Why not train villagers and set up a plant to process the cashew nuts locally, he thought, and thereby boosting their education and incomes? 

Aaron's motto "Show up, Start talking to people, and See which paths reveal themselves" was soon embraced by the cashew growers in the newly-established East Bali Cashews company. His brainchild start-up now supports a vibrant community of growers, complete with an immersion camp where visitors can learn about sustainable cultivation practices.

Why it took an outsider from the other side to make these inventions happen is a powerful question for executives and emerging leaders alike, especially at this time when populist voices are advocating for more protectionism.

What I learned from these examples is that outstanding solutions can be produced more easily when entrepreneurs can stand on the shoulders of cultural heroes and also enjoy the freedom to experiment beyond the boundaries of thought that traditions entail, and which can hold us back.

When leaders are freed to apply thinking from the other side, better solutions can emerge—as well as delectable fusion dishes and delicious locally-processed cashew nuts. Leading across boundaries and welcoming the other side of tradition can transform leaders and the products they create.

I remember how Xianbin Yao, one of the inspiring leaders I had the pleasure of learning from, explained that he encouraged trespassing at work, because exceptional value is created at the crossroads of different ways of thinking.

Exploring the other side of traditions is truly a sign of timeless wisdom.

Trespassing is encouraged, because exceptional value is created at the crossroads of different ways of thinking.
— Xianbin Yao