Everything I Know About Team Dynamics, I Learned From Cooking with My Wife

While this post’s title is patently false, curiously any sample of historical evidence from my life would backtest very well. I’m fortunate that my wife and I share that sliver of a Venn diagram representing couples who enjoy cooking together (if you believe me) and who cook delicious meals together (if you believe our guests).

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Well, we do serve cheese often, but… [credit: tylervigen.com]
This is not a cooking blog, so let’s focus on the principles that make us an effective team:

Be Accountable for Outcomes, Not Tasks

It’s possible to assemble perfectly prepared ingredients into a terrible meal. Rather than assigning responsibility for strictly defined steps in a process, delegate outcomes and give flexibility in the steps to achieve them. In our kitchen, this means we each take ownership of a course in the meal or a finished product on the plate, instead of the specific steps across the meal (chop, saute, sauce, etc.). In the office, the same approach ensures focus on the deliverables with space for innovation and learning in the method.

Separate Where You Work, and How You Work Matters Less

In our kitchen, one of us leaves a trail of dirty dishes, a cluttered and dirty counter, and a splattered stove top behind us, and the other keeps it relatively clean. When we are working in our own corners of the kitchen (or in the first kitchen we shared, our own ends of the tiny counter), there’s no problem. At the office, some people like to sit, others stand or walk; some spread papers over every inch of desk and leave ink on every inch of whiteboard, others…don’t. People have similar diversity in approaching a project: some prefer an intricate Gantt chart, others work best under the pressure of a looming deadline. It’s more likely that colleagues will have a differing style than identical ones, so find space in the office to prevent friction among team members.

Escalate Early, Prioritize Often

Surprises are inevitable in our kitchen; that’s part of the fun. What helps us navigate these surprises as a cooking team is keeping each other informed as the facts change, and based on the implications, constantly evaluating the plan. Half of the peaches in the farmer’s market bag are rotten? If we don’t get more fruit, we won’t have a dessert. Ok, add cherries and change it from a torte to a cobbler. In the office, many people fear that sharing “bad news” means admitting weakness or incompetence. They worry this will distract or irritate the boss. Instead, treat unexpected events as an opportunity to practice risk assessment and prioritization skills. Even if the new information doesn’t change the plan immediately, the entire team knows the current situation, which could change the outcome of the next decision.

Never Let a Customer Be The First To Test Your Final Product

I give extra respect to pastry chefs because they have to get the dish right the first time. Once the cake comes out of the oven, there’s no going back to tweak the batter. Whenever possible, our dishes come out best when we are constantly tasting each other’s food and adjusting flavors. In the office, test your ideas with colleagues, especially those with a different point of view. Let them help you find bias in your perspectives, or weak links in your reasoning. Leave an idea on your whiteboard and practice your elevator pitch with people who stop by. Find areas of concern or resistance to change in the organization in a non-threatening way. Not only will your work product improve, but when it comes to that “big kickoff meeting,” many people in the room will be familiar with the ideas and share a sense of ownership–because they helped develop the concepts along the way.

In the end, there is only one chef

Amidst the emphasis on collaboration, let’s not underestimate the need for leadership on a team. Especially in stressful or unfamiliar situations, teams perform better under decisive leadership. So don’t forget why you get paid the medium-sized bucks, and step up to lead when required. My wife knows how to do this in our kitchen, much to the benefit of our dinner guests.

A problem best left unsolved

I’ve never been particularly good at planning my future. Especially before age 30, I was content to follow the path that others suggested. What I studied, where I worked, and my hobbies arose more by not saying no to a suggestion than by my own design. I believed this lack of foresight was a complex problem, compounding my discomfort.
Two recent revelations came as welcome surprises. First, my unexpected actual life is more rewarding than attaining the expected life would be. If 18 year old Ryan opened the mail one day to find a biography of 38 year old Ryan, he would laugh and call it impossible. If I had obediently checked the boxes of personal and professional achievement my elders set before me as a teen, the best I could feel is a sense of relief. Instead, I experience moments of wide-eyed disbelief at the wild path I followed to today.
Second, less concern about the future leaves more attention to invest in the present. Every moment of worry or wonder about tomorrow is a moment of today that escapes unnoticed.

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Choose to make fresh tracks…on and off the snow.

With such a wonderful current life, I can be certain of troubling, sad, and difficult times ahead. At least one recession, war, or pandemic will occur in my lifetime; or all three. The death of my parents’ generation will disrupt the current equilibrium of my family. Accident or acute illness for my wife or children is inescapable. I also expect to make mistakes as a husband, father, and employee. But with vigilance not to repeat the mistakes of my past, I can extend my fulfillment into future “todays.”
So in hindsight, it’s better that I never figured out how to plan my life. Each day, my intent is to demonstrate the values my wife and I wish to instill in our children. Perhaps they too will find that not over-planning the future will lead to a happier present.

 

image: groupon.com

Does your job fulfill the career Hierarchy of Needs?

Among the many first world problems readers of this blog will face is the challenge of finding a rewarding career. With apologies to Maslow, I’ve created a hierarchy of needs for careers. You may find this helpful when comparing options to change jobs within a company or between organizations. Remember that just like in other areas of consumer behavior, career decisions are about making trade-offs. Is a shorter commute “worth” doing more PowerPoint slides? Would you give up your dynamic and cohesive team for the chance to make a more tangible positive difference to society? Keep in mind that the items at the top of the pyramid tend to take a longer time to become evident.

My last caveat before explaining the career hierarchy of needs is what you won’t see on the list. Compensation and title/status are not part of this hierarchy for two reasons: first, adequate compensation and title are pre-requisites for any job that an established professional would consider. Second, as authors like Daniel Pink and Andy LaCivita have illustrated, throwing more money at a person in a marginally tolerable role is only a temporary fix.

Hierarchy of Needs for Careers

Hierarchy of Needs mapped to career development
Hierarchy of Needs mapped to career development
  1. (top) Purpose – what difference are we making in the world?
  2. Learning – what skills, knowledge, and experience will you gain?
  3. People – how enjoyable is the company of the team?
  4. Tasks – how fulfilling is the work itself?
  5. (bottom) Work environment – how is the commute, the workplace, the lighting, the snacks?

Try using this set of attributes to plan your next career move, or to start a discussion among your team about how to improve the current environment. If you have feedback about what I’ve omitted, or what doesn’t belong, leave a comment.