Developing a Taste for Innovation at Rich Products | FourSight

According to the Innovation Network, 88 percent of all organizations have the word “innovation” or “creativity” in their mission statements. But less than 5 percent of those same organizations have programs in place to teach innovation or creativity and make it part of the culture.

The exception to the rule

Rich Products is the exception to the rule. For more than 15 years, this family-owned, Buffalo-based food manufacturer has committed to an active innovation training program. Innovation is the cornerstone of its business: In 1945, founder Robert Rich, Sr. invented non-dairy whipped topping (think frosting). Today, Rich’s sells mainly to restaurants, grocery store chains, schools and big bakeries. You may not have heard of Rich’s, but you’ve heard of its customers.

Innovation remains one of its five corporate values. And it shows up in how they talk, develop their leaders & associates, and deliver value to customers. It also shows up in the bottom line. In 1995, celebrating its 50th anniversary, Rich’s posted $1 billion in sales. Last year, it posted $3 billion. Rich’s now has 9,000 associates worldwide and sells more than 2,000 products in 110 countries. It’s the largest private company in Western New York

Training Creative Problem Solving

Rich’s actually has a manager of Creativity and Facilitation. Her name is Shari Rife. She remembers 15 years back, when she first learned about creative problem solving at a Rich’s training program. She was fascinated with the tools and the power of the process to engender collaboration and effective solutions. In fact, she went on to pursue a Masters of Science in Creativity. Now she helps train creative problem solving and develops in-house facilitators who support groups that want to collaborate more effectively, using the process.

“Rich’s leadership felt that creative problem solving was a great foundation: clarifying, ideating, developing and implementing. It’s so connected with who we are as a company… by ‘imagining what’s possible and creating what’s valued.’ We want to have everybody thinking that way every day,” says Rife. “It’s not only about delivering a new product, it’s also about process, people and place. It’s about how you react when someone comes up with a new idea. We all can contribute in some way.

Training is tailored to different levels. Managers can attend a 2.5-day training program to learn to be creative leaders. Overall associates can attend a 1-day training program to learn a shared language, process and tools for creative problem solving. Even top executives whose attention is in constant demand, have taken a half-day intensive session.

“I wish my boss understood this!”

“When associates go through the training and say, ‘Wow, I wish my boss understood this,’ we can say, ‘They do!’” says Rife.

All levels from senior leadership down take FourSight: Your Thinking Profile and use the four-step FourSight model as a shared language for creative problem solving. “People find huge value in it,” she says. “Teams now have this awareness of their creative preferences as well as their potential blind spots.

Kudos from all corners of the company

“I found the creative problem solving training to be extremely useful as it put the power of creativity in the context of the corporate environment,” said an assistant marketing manager who participated in a workshop. “I co-facilitated a development session last month, and the tools I gained from the course helped bring the team to the next level in determining a solution to the problem they faced.”

“I loved doing real customer facilitation,” said a Senior Food Technologist , after attending the Rich’s creative problem solving seminar in Buffalo. “But my favorite part was receiving my FourSight assessment. It’s always fascinating to see all the inklings you have about yourself spelled out on paper. I’ve already shared my profile with some teammates to see how it can be leveraged.”

Rife is happy igniting creativity in others in a company that gives much more than lip service to its commitment to innovation

“We are all creative.”

“We are all creative,” she says, “and our training allows people to identify and explore their preferences and comfort level in the process as well as drive innovation at Rich’s and value to our customers.”

Shari Rife is manager of Creativity and Facilitation at Rich Products. She attended the very first FourSight certification course nearly 10 years ago. She can be reached at

Sarah Thurber

Sarah is managing partner at FourSight and the author of The Secret of the Highly Creative Thinker, Creativity Unbound, and Facilitation: A Door to Creative Leadership. Her work helps teams and leaders think creatively, work collaboratively and achieve innovative results.