Think like a Chef

The trouble is that, in my view, the continual bombardment of quick and simple recipes is doing nothing to teach us how to cook. We are in serious danger of becoming slaves to recipes, rather than having the confidence to be able to walk along a supermarket aisle, or look through fridge and cupboard, to see what can be conjured up. …. But surely recipes can also spark off ideas or, more importantly, be used as reference guides for other recipes.

But the fact is, if you don’t know what makes things work, you won’t be able to improvise.

~ Heston Blumenthal, The Guardian Food & Drink

Photo: Neale Haynes

I have long been a fan of the television series Masterchef (especially the Australian show). I find it fascinating to watch the journey of these amateur cooks, many of whom are already pretty accomplished at the start of the show, as they endure pressure and overcome challenges they’ve never faced before. Many are tripped up by a particularly challenging “mystery box” (a box of random ingredients they need to use to create a dish while under time pressure) or when they encounter the real pressures of a professional kitchen with demanding customers and hard time boundaries. Over the course of the competition, they learn from the best chefs, not only recipes, but principles. They also learn how to cook in different contexts, make up their own recipes and improvise under pressure. In short, they learn to think like Chefs.

Chefs don’t create new ingredients, they experiment and improvise to create new recipes with existing ingredients. They are able to do this, because they understand the principles of cooking:  flavors, heat sources etc.  Similarly, once the contestants understand these principles, they also become able to adapt to any context.  If however they only know how to follow recipes, they will be stuck whenever they find themselves in an unfamiliar context.

Today’s business environments aren’t like ideal kitchens where we have tried and tested recipes to follow; all the required ingredients, equipment and tools ready at hand; all the time we need; and if for some reason something doesn’t go to plan, a resident expert around who has done it before.  They’re more like kitchens with shelves full of ingredients but no suitable recipes (or shelves full of recipes, but no familiar ingredients); foreign equipment we’ve never used before in this context; no experts to consult and a crowd of demanding and hungry people to feed in very little time.

In this context, I often hear leaders saying things like …
“If only my people would think for themselves!” or “We need to innovate! My people need to think differently!” … or “Why, after all the training we’ve invested in are my people still not agile or customer centric or creative or “insert problem word here”?”.

I believe a big part of the problem is that in most corporates, people have been trained or conditioned to think like recipebook users.  People are trained to follow recipes or ways of work without ever understanding why those processes work the way they do (something that is rife in the Agile community); or they are incentived not to think for themselves, but blindly do what they are told.

Many businesses find themselves in uncharted territory – in kitchens where the ingredients and tools at hand are foreign and we have no experts around who’ve been there before. We can no longer afford to train our people to be recipe-book users, we have to make sure they have enough of an understanding of the principles (i.e. the “why” behind the recipes) and contextual intelligence to accurately discern their context so that they can respond and improvise when the context demands it.

If we want people to apply their minds to the problem at hand and improvise in the moment, we need to make sure that …

  •  they understand the principles (the why) and how to apply it, not just follow recipes
  •  the environment (or kitchen) we put them in is properly equipped to support improvisation
  •  our processes, policies and systems don’t disincentivise autonomy – if the incentives, management protocols and culture don’t support local autonomy and experimentation, people may know how to improvise, but they won’t be brave (or stupid) enough to actually do it.  If people are punished if they make mistakes or deviate from standard procedures, they will not “think for themselves” or improvise even when the context demands it.  In some cases this may be appropriate e.g. in dangerous or heavily regulated contexts where compliance to rules is important.  However, I’d argue that even here, people need to understand the broader context for those rules so that they are able to discern when a shifting context may require a re-examination of the rules and/or processes.
  • people feel safe to question processes and policies.  Guide dogs and airline personnel among others are trained to be “intelligently disobedient”, i.e. know when to question or refuse to follow a rule or order if it can lead to a potential safety risk.  In most organisations, people are discouraged from thinking critically and punished for not following orders.  We can no longer afford for even the lowest level staff members in our organisations to not be able (or allowed) to think.

Expecting people to be agile and creative without ensuring that they understand principles and how to apply them, and without creating enabling environments is setting them up for failure.

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