“Do people do that with you? Offer you some food that, if you don’t eat it, they’re only going to ‘throw it away.’ Well, doesn’t that make you feel dandy? Here’s something to eat, Dave, hurry up, it’s spoiling… something for you, Angela, eat quickly, that green pod is moving… here, Bob, eat this before I give it to an animal.'” — George Carlin
No one can describe the unusual color and shape of discarded food left for transformation into yuck quite like my hero, George Carlin. And yet, often when I think of his incomparable Ice Box Man routine, I can’t help but associate the bit with business opportunity waiting to be discovered.
No, I’m not talking about mold morphing into penicillin, which isn’t a bad analogy. I’m talking about something I like to call the Parable of the Cold Burrito.
You know, the Cold Burrito—that really great burrito you picked up at your favorite burrito place about a week ago. The one with all the things you like in it— eggs, cheese, potatoes, salsa, the incredibly fresh tortilla— the one you couldn’t wait to gobble down, only it was so filling you only ate half, then put the other half in the refrigerator. Then you forgot about your leftovers, and like the Ice Box man, rediscovered it in less glory.
Perhaps it’s not as dire as Carlin might describe it. There could be life in it. That’s up to you to decide.
You have two choices—toss it in the garbage and be done with it, or see if a little creativity can bring it back to life. I guess there is a third option, leave it in the back of the refrigerator to continue full metamorphosis, but I’m going to take a leap of faith and say you know better than that (or maybe you have been warned about ‘selective obscurity’ by your spouse).
Let’s say you pick choice #2. You remember how good it was when it wasn’t a Cold Burrito—it was a warm, wonderful burrito, but you aren’t at the place where you bought it. You unwrap it, add some other ingredients you like, some onion, a different kind of cheese, a few spices from the pantry. You carefully wrap it in foil, put it in the oven for a while around 350 degrees (not a quick soggy fix in the microwave), then retrieve it and add some shredded lettuce and chopped tomato, a little avocado. What do you have now? Something that no one else wanted, something you weren’t even sure you wanted, something that is not the same as it was, but something that is really quite good in the way you have helped it change.
Okay, it’s not a perfect parable, but you get the idea. The Cold Burrito is something you want that no one else wanted—something in which you saw potential, that easily could have been scrapped— something that began with someone else’s creativity, was forgotten for a while, then became something you reinvented. That’s a story I have told a lot of people asking me how to find hidden opportunity.
The Cold Burrito is the opportunity you see in a company asset that no one else does. It’s the dog project no one wants, so you do. It’s the nasty problem no one is willing to tackle, so you are.
Everyone wants the fresh burrito! How hard is that to bring to market? It’s already new! It’s already fresh! It’s hot out of the oven. It sells itself. Do you think you are going to make your mark doing what everyone else wants to do? And can do? No, you want the opportunity no one else wants, no one else sees, something that takes courage and vision.
Sometimes the Cold Burrito is an abandoned brand that was once popular, but suffered neglect following mass harvest. Sometimes it can be the shelved initiative that was once loved, but now the research says it’s not going to work, but you know the research is wrong. Sometimes it’s the blank page, the blue sky initiative that terrifies everyone, so they run to the latest brand extension of what’s working now—but not you! You know trying to put something where there is nothing is hugely risky, but with risk comes reward, so you put up your hand and say give me that Cold Burrito, even though it’s invisible and I can’t see it. I’m joining a team that is willing to invent it. If I fail I can live with that, but I would rather succeed trying the untried than live under the radar with tiny fragments of credit for the ordinary and easy.
When Steve Jobs came back to Apple, the company was moribund, the once great products were ordinary, the stock was in the toilet— but what he saw was the Cold Burrito, the goodwill in the Apple brand that needed an infusion of passion, detail, and excellence. When Michael Eisner came to Disney, the company was in the gun sights of arbitrage, long without a hit, the animators on pause—but what he saw was the Cold Burrito, the creative legacy of Walt ready to be introduced to a new generation of families with music, characters, and stories. The Variety Show on network TV was dead, then there was Dancing with the Stars and American Idol. Friendster stalled, then there was Facebook. A lot of music executives thought guitar bands were a passing fad, then came The Beatles.
Okay, those were ice-cold burritos in the hands of master chefs, but smaller examples are probably sitting on your desk right now. Or your neighbor’s desk. Can you see them? Are you looking? They may be old ideas made new, or new ideas unproven, but they are the opportunities conventional wisdom tells you to avoid at all costs. I say embrace them.
Carlin made us laugh because he saw what we all saw, but he observed something else, that when revealed, offered stark reflection within its silliness. Try the same thing in business, perhaps absent the silliness, though without taking yourself too seriously. We can all see the Cold Burrito for what it is, but only a few of us can see it for what it can be. Try risking that, and the results might be career changing, even life changing.
You want the Cold Burrito. It can be your ticket to the big time.
Ken, it may not be the “perfect parable”, but yeah, the idea is clear and crucial.
OK, argue that “you’re” not a master chef, but if that’s the reason you let the burrito rot – or throw it out – you’ve just made THAT limitation yours.
But courage and vision, as we know, aren’t usually found in the mundane world of following the lemmings. What does inspire one to take that risk: to look for that cold burrito on his or her desk?
This post does.
I’m also reminded of a somewhat crude saying that I attribute to Aldo Ray in a movie that I couldn’t validate: “I don’t have to be smart (read; courageous or visionary) all of my life; just 5 minutes of it.”
Jeff, thank you for the comment. You have so much wisdom to offer. Your students were very lucky to have you in the classroom. I consider myself fortunate to be one of your students in the real world! — Ken
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