Managing is a lot like cooking. Most of us have not been formally trained to cook. We probably learned from watching others—unless you live in New York City where people do cook but they do it in restaurant kitchens and the food is delivered to your door—using specific spices, relying on certain staples. At the same time we know that there are many, many cuisines in the world, people using different ingredients, meat or no meat, spicy or mild, woks, tagines, pressure cookers.
So let’s say you know some basics from your childhood and, because you have to feed yourself (and don’t live in New York City), you are going to make dinner for six friends. With dessert.
You have the goal: dinner for six. You have the equipment. Where do you start?
One option is to cook what you know how to cook. Maybe this is a recipe from your family, a rich, creamy, spicy coconut curry. Another is to look in a cookbook—right over there, on the shelf above the paper towels; Italian? You’re more familiar with curry, and you get cooking.
The guests arrive for dinner. You’ve used a family recipe, serving it with rice and naan bread, and vermicelli rice pudding topped with almonds for dessert. Delicious! Yum! Everyone sits down, and people start passing the food, and you notice that everyone has rice, only four of the six have taken the curry, and five have taken the naan. Holy mackerel! What is wrong with those people? The food is perfect, spices balanced, shrimp tender, just like when you were growing up. Some people are looking sideways, envious that others are eating what looks like really good food. Others are eating just rice and bread. One is eating just rice. What is their problem?
Dessert is served. Three of the six take servings of the rice pudding, the others politely decline. Your cooking show career is over before it began.
You had the tools, you reached the goal. One of the guests ate everything and loved it all, but a number of guests went away unsatisfied and hungry. You don’t know why. You can guess, maybe they just didn’t like curry. Or rice pudding.
Or maybe some of them were allergic to shellfish. Or gluten. Or they were vegetarian. Perhaps the curry was so spicy people felt pain when they ate it. Maybe it was the milk in the rice pudding, or that people were on a diet, or diabetic, or couldn’t eat the tree nuts. Or they just didn’t like curry or rice pudding.
The point here is that we can be clear about our goal/mission (dinner) and have all the tools we need to reach that mission, but if we don’t plan the menu with those who are eating, or at least ask questions, some people are going to go hungry. Some are only going to get the savory and not the sweet. Some are going to miss the protein they need to remain healthy.
A possible solution: move from the recipes and dishes we know so well, our comfort zone, and ask others what nourishes them, what they like to eat. What kind of a dinner they want/need.
This is a different way of getting to dinner. One that may entail more work during the planning and preparation, but can provide a meal that actually nourishes everyone at the table. There may need to be more than one main dish prepared, or collectively people may come up with an idea for one dish that accommodates everyone. Or people can bring dishes and you can have a buffet.
Underlying making a dinner are questions. What is the purpose of the meal? Is it purely for nourishment? Is it an opportunity for socialization and the food is not that important? Is it a way to show off your new furniture or your cooking skills? Is the purpose evident—has it been spoken aloud?
What are the expectations of the guests? Are they coming to see you, or because you are known as a great curry-maker? Are they on a limited budget and need a meal? Do they have a political opinion or idea they want to discuss with others? Are they looking for a night out without the kids?
If we have not asked, we don’t know the point of the dinner for those coming. Even if it is as basic as nourishment, if we don’t ask what people can and cannot eat, we will fail to nourish even if we have achieved the goal: a dinner prepared. It’s kind getting to a ‘mini-mission’, the ‘why’ of one night.
It’s the same for managing. If the mission is nourishment and the goal is dinner, and we don’t ask about the best possible meal/managing for all, some people are going to go away unfed/without suport. If this happens over and over, people learn to expect that although they are promised nourishment, they will get a meal/managing that does not provide what they need to be healthy/do the work. And this will limit their strength, creativity, outlook and their ability to cook/work for others.
If we want strong, creative, committed teams who are truly working with and for the best interest of a better world, we need to look beneath the mission at the unspoken/unwritten ways we operate to achieve it. We can develop cultures within our organizations that provide guides to how the mission is achieved through collaboration, and ways of managing that reflect the collaborative process. Results: nourishment for all.