How Stella Saved the Farm

A Tale About Making Innovation Happen

–Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble–



The animals have been running Windsor farm for decades, and have come to a critical time in the life of the business. “Work harder, work longer” just won’t cut it when trying to keep up with the mass expansions pursued by competing farms, which means that the farm needs an innovative business line to continue as a growing concern. Dierdre (the CEO) announces a contest, and the winner is the idea to expand into luxury wool production (the idea comes from Stella).

How Stella Saved the Farm is about the necessity of all the members of the Windsor farm coming together, not necessarily to work together (sharing job tasks), but to learn lessons about innovation, cooperation, communication, risk-taking, and, ultimately, about what it means to be in business.

Eight lessons, including memorable phrases such as In any great innovation story, the idea is only the beginning and Expecting one leader to ‘just go make it happen’ was a woefully inadequate approach to moving an innovative idea forward clearly articulate the major lessons.

It should be used as an inspiration for innovation explorations and reinforcement of projects that may seem stalled and struggling. It’s an easy, fun read with deep wisdom.

What It Says

This is, first and foremost, a business book written as a fable. It’s got very important lessons on how to organize people, processes, and priorities to increase the chances of success in an innovative endeavor. How Stella Saved the Farm (Stella) is about the Windsor farm (or even your own business), competitors, international trade, internal territorialism, skepticism, loyalty, compensation, and, most importantly, learning from innovation exercises.

Stella opens with Marcus, the old-guard stallion and retiring CEO, passing the reins (pun intended) to Dierdre. She recognizes the threats from without, and seeks to make Windsor farm into a robust enterprise that will be able to withstand the competition for decades to come. In order to expand offerings, she initiates an innovation competition to develop new ideas on how to expand the farm’s offerings and create greater resilience in the future.

How Stella Saved the Farm: A Tale About Making Innovation Happen

The winning project, to introduce a luxury Alpaca wool line (with higher margins, yet based on similar practices from raising sheep and harvesting their wool) comes from Stella the sheep (hence the title). The development of the new line, including production, marketing, and distribution (to name a few) requires innovation on behalf of everyone at the farm. Ultimately, the line becomes successful, but not without its challenges and lessons learned.

The question, “Will Dierdre [Stella, Max, Bull, Einstein] save the farm?” is a repeated refrain throughout.

The answer, to all of them, is both Yes and No.

The point of asking the question multiple times is to illustrate that while many people view transformational change or regenerative enterprises as an individual endeavor, it really takes everyone’s unique insights, contributions, and support to actually complete the work.

Eight lessons are sprinkled throughout, and as hinted at in the Premise above, are about business. But they’re also about innovation, such as the “First Law of running business experiments”, which any innovation (or expansion) clearly is. This Law says that disciplined experimentation will lead to Learning first, profits second, and highlights the (unfortunately) counter-intuitive view that innovation is not about getting it right the first time. It’s about learning (quickly) what works and what doesn’t, and using that information to make changes and improve the experiment for even greater learning.


Useful For

Those businesses (small or large) who can look forward and see big challenges looming. They need something new, they need a different way of looking at the world, or they need new ways to be proactive as the competition innovates and tries to steal their market share.

This could be a great book for an executive development program, as all those up-and-coming future decision-makers will need to see examples of different ways to make change a reality. B-school case studies are all well and good, but something like this, where the content and learning are carefully scripted to produce generic learning objectives, would allow for individual organizations to tailor the principles to their specific situation.

Who It’s Not For

Those who are stuck in their ways, are unwilling to consider new ideas, and are just happy with business as usual.

For them, the pain of change (and the potential for social shame through having to admit you’re wrong) from introducing a new process, product, or way of doing business is less than the pain of doing nothing. Until that pain of the status quo is greater than the pain of change, nothing will advance.

Unfortunately for many, they don’t have the foresight to see those pain changes coming, nor do they have the discipline to take necessary risks to introduce innovation. As such, many will fall, when they could have been proactive and adapted before the storms arrived.

Is It Sufficient?

Not really. It’s a nice idea, and it reads really easy (I think I read it in only a couple of hours), but in order to actually implement the lessons you will need to have significant investment in your own team.

This would be reading, discussion, and practical application including some experimentation. You will need to try a few avenues, like in Stella, and perhaps drop one or two when they’re proving unproductive. This is a difficult thing to do. You have to actually act on the ideas that innovation is about learning first, profits second, and many are not prepared to do that.

Their short-term view of losses clouds the long-term view of the leading indicators pointing towards future declines.

However, it’s also not a promotional for the authors’ consultative services or product funnel, which is a refreshing change. Most other books which are “not sufficient” are advertisements for something more, and to see one that presents the ideas (but with future work needed) without asking for more investment is refreshing.

How You Should Use It

  1. Read it.
  2. Identify yourself in one (or more) of the characters – Dierdre, Marcus, Stella, Rambo, Bull, Mav, Maisie, Einstein, or another.
  3. Ask, “Does my business need innovation? And what is our attitude to that process? Are we doing it right?”
  4. If the answers are Yes, Wrong, and No (or I don’t know), then it’s time to refocus. Discussing how to implement the eight lessons within How Stella Saved the Farm will give you greater insights and guidance on how to organize your priorities, your teams, your processes, your benchmarking, your planning, and your evaluations of success.
  5. Finally, take the lessons learned through your own evaluation to the full team, create a culture of disciplined experimentation for the purpose of learning lessons, and then take those lessons and apply them to achieve the innovation success you wish to see.


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images (C) Govindarajan and Trimble