The first time I saw my mom throw pasta at the fridge to see if it stuck, I thought I was witnessing a minor miracle. Moms were always good for that sort of thing. Never mind that her pasta turned out like mush. What can I say; the woman couldn’t cook for beans.

Still, what was once a cool culinary trick for making starchy spaghetti has become a surprisingly good model for entrepreneurial and business success. I’d even go as far as to say that, the day you stop throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks is the day you stop innovating.    

Without a doubt, the number one enemy of companies and careers alike is day-to-day inertia. Once you start getting fat, dumb and happy off the status quo, it’s only a matter of time before your competition eats you alive. It’s the rule of competitive markets: If you’re not growing faster than the market, you’re effectively shrinking.

We sort of live, eat and breathe that philosophy in the high-tech industry. We learned long ago that if we don’t cannibalize our own products by periodically coming up with something new and better, our competitors will. And that, my friends, is always a recipe for disaster.

Just look at Sony, HP, Blackberry and Nokia. The tech industry is littered with once-storied companies that lost their innovative mojo and fell off a cliff. That’s how fragile this innovation game can be.

Now, let me see if I can blow your mind the way my mom did in our tiny little kitchen back in Brooklyn. Many of the most successful ideas – products that remade entire competitive landscapes and the fortunes of the companies that came up with them – were not revolutionary concepts.

MP3 players had been around forever before Apple came out with iPod and iTunes. The same is true of smartphones, tablets and smart watches. And yet, Apple’s products were the ones that really made those categories pop. How did that happen? As it turns out, innovation isn’t always about inventing a new category, but looking at an existing category in a different way.  

In my experience, that’s always been the biggest pitfall for executives and business leaders. They get trapped by their own preconceived notions of how they do things or how things have to be. The irony is, they create those traps themselves. To avoid that fate – becoming a victim of your own status quo – just follow this recipe:

Don’t succumb to the evils of yes-men and groupthink. Surround yourself with smart people with diverse backgrounds and encourage them to always speak their minds. After all, you don’t hire them and pay them beaucoup bucks to stand around and look good. You pay them to tell you the cold hard truth no matter what. 

Don’t wall yourself off in an ivory tower. When I started my career with Texas Instruments a million years ago, the company was proud of its open door policy. Hard to believe that was revolutionary. And yet, to this day, companies that swear by the same policy wall their executives off in ivory towers. I see it all the time.

Have a process for throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks. Every company I know that’s stood the test of time and withstood decades of competitive onslaught has homegrown processes for ensuring that its key executives get to shake things up, do some brainstorming and gain some perspective.

One more thing. Never mind what all the gluten free people say. Pasta’s good food. Just don’t overcook it. Remember, al dente.

A version of this originally appeared on

Image credit Chef Tobak