Meet Taco Bell's 'Resident Disruptor'

As academics debate the value of Clayton Christensen's "theory of disruption," this is how Taco Bell's Jeff Jenkins thinks about disruption. 
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This week, Harvard historian Jill Lepore published a scathing critique of one of Silicon Valley's sacred texts, Clayton Christensen's theory of disruptive innovation.

The theory was first elucidated at book length in Christensen's 1997 work, The Innovator’s DilemmaThe gist is that smaller, nimbler disrupters can take out established firms by offering less capable products that don't seem like they serve the core customer base well. 

Christensen's theory was based on nine case studies, and it is their factual basis that Lepore goes after. She argues that they don't really hold up. Christensen, in an angry interview with Businessweek, responded that the theory itself has developed over the last 17 years, and wonders why Lepore didn't go beyond just the one book. He certainly feels he's been wronged, and it was interesting to discover that Lepore never spoke to the man behind the theory.

But more than this particular spat, I'm interested in how the concept of disruption—this techno-business phenomenon—has bled out into all kinds of businesses, even (especially?) Taco Bell. 

I first realized this reading Austin Carr's perplexing and hilarious feature on the creation of the Doritos Locos taco. The shock that Taco Bell's product people at least perform for Carr is stunning in its ludicrousness. 

[O]ne idea, from Doritos-maker Frito-Lay, stuck out: a Doritos-based taco shell pocketed with Taco Bell ingredients. "It was basically an image [of this taco] on a piece of paper, with a written description. I don't know what technology they use. We didn't even taste it; it was just more of, 'Hey, this is what it could look like,'" Perdue says. "It was like, 'Holy crap!' Nobody had ever done this before: turning a Dorito into a taco shell. It was just mind-blowing at the idea stage." Steve Gomez, Taco Bell's food innovation expert, recalls seeing the first mock-up. "Every day I see a lot of concepts--sketches on paper, written words about products--and my job is to turn those products into reality," he says. "But in all my years as a product developer, I've never seen a concept like this. The product didn't even exist yet, and already people knew this idea was going to be huge."

Holy crap! Had people who work at Taco Bell never thought of creating a taco shell out of Doritos? (They need to move their innovation headquarters to Colorado, obviously.)

But what's really absurd about this is how precisely they've aped the language that technical companies use to describe what they've done. They are discussing, in essence, a concept taco. There are mock-ups. For an ingestible food item!

And yet, the Doritos Locos taco is a success. The food innovation team was correct. Taco Bell remained undisrupted. Really, one could argue, Taco Bell has been the disruptor. The business-boosting success of the pretzel burger at Wendy's seems like a phenomenon that only could have happened in a post-Doritos Locos world. 

Which brings me to Jeff Jenkins, Taco Bell's "resident disruptor." He is a genuinely nice guy, it would appear, and a force of disruption within the company. He's trying to disrupt Taco Bell before someone outside the company can. He's like a white-hat taco hacker. 

His college, the University of Virginia, interviewed him for a series they do on alumni, and it was fascinating to hear him talk about about he saw his job and business. The idea of disruption—of the rapid rise of a new competitor, who eats your lunch (heh)—is so deeply ingrained in this generation of businesspeople. 

Jenkins begins: 

Yeah, so here at Taco Bell, one of the great things about our company is that they are very understanding that the world is changing and the world is changing very quickly. Whether it's companies like Uber disrupting the taxi cab industry or Airbnb disrupting the hotel industry, disruption is happening everywhere and Taco Bell recognizes that. And the great thing about it was they sort of really embraced disruption and how do we do things differently, how do we reinvent what we do. And so my job here at Taco Bell is to really think about that.

Are there similarities between the challenges Uber and Airbnb present to their industries and the fight between TacoBell and its competitors for market share? I'm guessing not many specific ones.

In the broad strokes that most people use to understand it, disruption is a fear factor that allows creative people within a company to make counterintuitive plays. There doesn't have to be an Uber for tacos and it doesn't have to make sense that there would be an Uber for tacos. What matters is that in a hypercompetitive economy, Taco Bell's business could collapse in any number of ways.

And maybe that's what's been powerful for businesspeople like Jenkins about Christensen's theory. It makes everyone feel and talk like they work for a tech company. 

Taco Bell may sell fast food, but Jenkins rhapsodizes about he loves to build things. He's smuggled in a way whole of thinking through the premise of pervasive disruption. (A way of thinking that bleeds right back into the image Taco Bell wants attached to its brand, at least as evidenced by its popular Twitter feed.) 

So I lead our mobile team, our loyalty team. Gift cards. I also started a new fast casual concept for the Yum family of brands called US Taco Company, a fast casual restaurant that Yum will be opening here in the next month. So, I think the whole thing that I do is sit and think about how do we look to the future and try to anticipate where it's going...

With my role here at Taco Bell, it's all been about understanding what I want to do and what I love to do, knowing who you are. The thing I love to do more than anything else is life is build. I think I probably missed out on not majoring in architecture at UVA because I love to literally build things. So, knowing that, I wanted to be able to build a new mobile ordering system for Taco Bell. I wanted to be able to build a new concept. That was just, it's in my blood...

The role I have today, the title I have today, is all self-created. When I see an opportunity within our company, I'm not afraid to write the email. The new concept we're starting on, US Taco. Literally there was talk about it and it was sort of something that was being bantered about, and I literally wrote the president of the company and said, "Can I lead this? There's something really intriguing to me. I think there's something here. How do I be part of this?" And three days later, he wrote and said, "It's your baby."

 

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Presented by

Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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