What a year of cooking taught me about business

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In the last 12 months I have spent a good portion of my time learning how to cook better. It has been a way to reconnect to more.. manual labor: touching, smelling, peeling, tasting different ingredients. Creating food compositions. A welcome diversion from my daily digital work which involves almost no sensory involvement, and who’s outcome is, often, not particularly tangible. But I digress, let me get to the point.

I have found quite a few parallels between the world of cooking and that of business. Here is a list of the ones that come to mind first

1. Good recipes take time — some things just can’t be rushed

When I think about this, baking comes to mind. It is a work of precision, it is simply not possible to bake a cake in 10 minutes, in a fully satisfactory way. The same applies to most precision work at the office. Developing a long term business strategy or preparing an important brief, is not a last minute errand, nor a process that can magically be fast forwarded at will. If unreasonable time constraints are piled on, then quality and final output are going to suffer. It would seem obvious, but we still get hypnotized by the illusion that high quality work can be conjured out of thin air. To paraphrase in cooking terms, when you force the clock, instead of having a marvelous apple pie where the ingredients blend perfectly together, you will obtain a deflated soufflé, which tastes “ok” but is not going to win any prizes or benefit you in any particular way. We should be less afraid to invest time into making something great.

Developing a long term business strategy or preparing an important brief, is not a last minute errand, nor a process that can magically be fast forwarded at will

Imagine that you have made the most exquisite lasagna, it is MasterChef level and you are already looking forward to the positive comments you will receive. But when you plate it, the lasagna tilts and slumps to one side, oil and tomato sauce spatter all over the plate and some melted cheese hangs out on the rim of the plate like a bungee cord over a canyon. That is the perfect way to ruin all your hard work, as looking at your food influences how much you will enjoy your dish. Bad plating spoils the experience. In principle substance is much more important than form — in practice they are almost equal. The same applies to business presentations, with particular reference to dynamic in person presentations, but also to static, written reports. Even the most detailed and insightful report becomes scrap material if its final delivery falls short in terms of ease of interpretation. If the audience can’t be engaged, it is very hard to maintain its curiosity and therefore its attention. My point? We need to spend extra time making our business presentations more readable, more concise and avoid jargon and other unnecessary complications. It is not acceptable that effective presentation and clarity are but an after thought in the entire working process.

It is not acceptable that effective presentation and clarity are but an after thought in the entire working process

When you are cooking, your work is always based on the work of others. From the priciest slice of meat to the humblest of carrots, behind each ingredient there is a long, hidden journey. Somebody closely followed the growth process of the ingredients, took care of them, got them to the supermarket, where you eventually picked them up. It took effort and hard work for you to be able to make a dish out of them — the least you can do is treat your ingredients with respect, appreciate their qualities and make the most out of them when you transform them into a finished dish. The main point here is that in almost all cases, your work is dependent on the work of others. Without it, you would not be able to do what you do. The same applies to office life. Even the lowliest of reports, has required somebody, somewhere within the organization, to put some thought into it. Somebody’s time (a non refundable currency) has been used to deliver it. It may not be perfect, but just like a raw ingredient, it is a tool to make something even greater happen. Remind yourself, that no matter your outstanding individual skills, within an organization you are dependent on the work of others — appreciate it and the people behind it and you will see things improve.

your work is dependent on the work of others. Without it, you would not be able to do what you do.

Every cook knows that using a degraded ingredient is going to affect the entire dish. Even though that specific ingredient is only a minor component of the dish, a “wrong” flavor will be fully felt already at the first mouthful. Keeping your ingredients fresh, clean and of the highest quality goes a long way to making an appetizing dish. Looking at it in the business context, we could sum this up as “trash in, trash out”. This is an important lesson to learn, especially in this date and time, with analytics and data being hailed as the solution to every business challenge, at the expense of more intangible “domain knowledge”. The hype around the professional field of data analysis is through the roof, and trying to keep managers expectations rational is not simple. In practice when an analyst is forced to work with low quality, patchy and unstructured data, despite his skills, he or she can only do some much with what he or she is being handed. The final result reflects the quality of the inputs that have been used. So if you are truly dedicated to finding some insights, get ready to take your data sourcing very seriously, as it will impact the final flavor of the analysis.

The final result reflects the quality of the inputs that have been used

For every task there is a preferential tool, especially in the kitchen. Can you split a small tomato with a saw? What about peeling an apple with a machete? The answers to the two questions are, “technically yes”, but it complicates the task to such a degree that it is not worth performing it in the first place. If you had chosen the appropriate knife for the job, you would have saved time and effort. Within the kitchen such dilemmas tend to be quite simple, as the appropriate tool to use is well known. Within the business environment, things get more complicated. New tools are constantly being created, and faster than we can imagine. Sometimes there probably is a tool for that one problem we think has no solution. In other words, when the going gets hard, it might be beneficial to take some extra time to consider the opportunity of looking/using a different tool, for a certain task, rather than bang on with existing, legacy tools, which are often stretched well beyond their initial scope. It is a good exercise to challenge what is being used, why it is being used, and what it excels at.

New tools are constantly being created, and faster than we can imagine.

Take care and have a nice day

Marco

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