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Baking Up Innovation: Lessons in Stacking and Sequencing from My Mother’s Kitchen

"A good strategy isn’t about collecting all possible tactics but about sequencing them in a way that compounds their impact." ~ Indra Nooyi

Growing up I remember the aroma of freshly baked cakes in our home. On many occasions, I sat at our kitchen table, waiting impatiently and watching with anticipation as my mother whipped up my favorite chocolate cake for dessert. I couldn’t wait to lick the bowl and the spoon covered in chocolate batter or to cut the cake as soon as it came out of the oven. In every instance, she would tell me to wait until she was finished or until the cake had properly cooled off. The methodical way my mother baked always intrigued me. She had a rhythm, a sequence, that she adhered to. In most cases, I wondered why my mother didn’t just throw everything into a bowl at one time instead following her sequence of mixing the ingredients in a particular order to make sure her cakes turned out perfectly every time. On occasion, she would need to be innovative because she didn’t have an ingredient like buttermilk, and she would mix milk and lemon juice. Over time, as she taught me the art of baking cakes, I learned there was a method to her cake-making genius. While she had many ideas and recipes, I learned which cakes were quick and easy like a dump cake, compared to the more complicated carrot cake, which required a different more deliberate process.

Over time, I began to realize that her baking was a metaphorical masterclass. Without knowing it, my mom introduced me to the innovative concepts of stacking and sequencing. Think of stacking as piling up ideas, layer upon layer. Sequencing, on the other hand, is about arranging these ideas in a purposeful order. Both have their merits. Stacking is about volume and breadth, while sequencing can promote depth, allowing a nonlinear approach that encourages visionary leadership. Both are an important part of the innovation process.

As leaders, how often are we inspired by the myriad of ideas born from innovative conversations, yet can become overwhelmed when we try to successfully bring those ideas to life, simultaneously? The number of ideas is greater than the time, resources, and capacity needed to follow through. While both stacking and sequencing serve a purpose, it’s important to understand the difference.

Like my mom knew not to throw all the ingredients into the bowl at once to create an amazing-tasting cake, we must learn the difference between stacking and sequencing our innovative strategies to achieve our greatest result and impact. Here are four lessons I learned from my mom's baking process that’s relevant to the process of staking and sequencing:

1. Embrace Timing: Remember the cake layers, each one needed its time in the oven. Throwing everything together or rushing the process would have ended in a dessert disaster. Similarly, in innovation, not every idea should be baked at once. Much like the meticulous process of layering cake ingredients, innovators must understand when to introduce an idea, allowing it the space and time it needs to develop and mature. Find your rhythm; know when it's time to introduce the next big thing.

2. Make Room for the Unexpected: When my mom ran out of buttermilk, she didn’t see a roadblock; she saw an alternate route using milk and lemon juice. This wasn't the "usual" way, but it got results. In leadership, sometimes the best results come from unexpected methods. Linear paths might be comfortable, but the byways and detours can lead to the most innovative solutions.

3. Stack Wisely, Sequence Wisely & Know the Recipe: Some desserts were quick to whip up, while others, like the rich carrot cake, took time and a specific sequence. Similarly, when we stack ideas, we need to discern their nature. Some are rapid-fire, quick-win strategies, while others demand patience, nurturing, and a sequence that unfolds over time. Discern between your "dump cakes" and "carrot cakes" in the innovation space.

4. Don’t Clutter: Anyone who bakes knows that a cluttered kitchen counter can impede progress. While it's vital to have all your ingredients (or ideas) at hand, there comes a point where you need to declutter. In innovation, while collecting ideas is essential, hoarding them without purpose can lead to stagnation. Regularly evaluate, prune, and prioritize your innovation inventory.

Reflecting on those days in the kitchen with my mom, I learned that the best lessons often come from unexpected places. For me, it was witnessing the art of baking. For you, it might be somewhere else. The key is to observe, learn, and apply - whether it's baking a cake or leading a team towards innovation.


  • How are you currently sequencing your strategies?

  • In what ways could a nonlinear approach benefit your leadership style?

Interactive Exercises:

  1. Innovation Storyboard: Ask your team to list down ten ideas. Now, instead of stacking them, ask them to sequence the ideas in a way that tells a compelling story of change.

  2. Rearrange the Deck: On index cards, write down current projects. In teams, discuss and sequence these projects by their impact and importance.


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