I recently decided to learn how to cook. This is a huge change for me – since I was raised on cans of Spaghetti-Os and ready-serve packets of creamed chip beef (for breakfast!), and then was married to an excellent cook for many years.
But now that I’m in charge of nutrition and culinary delights in my household, I want more than the steady parade of pasta-with-butter, pancakes-for-dinner, veggie-dogs-and-mayo (don’t ask…), and take-out that I’ve been serving up.
So, I signed up for Dinnerly, and have been doing it for 7 weeks. I’d looked at the subscription-box services before, but the prices were way more than I was used to spending on food, and I wasn’t confident that I would be able to actually make the stuff, or like it. Dinnerly’s price point was better, and that made it easier for me to take the leap.
Let’s recap how I’ve been doing, since I think it’s a good representation of what it looks like to make a meaningful change and to build up a capability that you’ve never had before.
Week 1: Dinnerly arrives on Tuesday. I cram the ingredients in my fridge and eat 2 veggie dogs. I consider cooking twice during the week but I am too tired and settle for the usual instead.
Week 2: Dinnerly arrives. I cram ingredients into fridge, in addition to last week’s. I attempt my first meal, and it takes me about an hour to make. I have no idea what “finely chopped” means for garlic.
Week 3: Dinnerly arrives. I cram ingredients into fridge, which brings the total to 8 recipes worth of ingredients stuffed in fridge. There is little room for the other food I usually keep in there, and I decide that I will put ingredients in containers, by recipe, when they arrive…next week. I make 2 meals. During the first meal, I create a 3-foot high fireball on my stove when I add water to a pan of oil – turns out that when the recipe says to add ingredients to a pan of oil, and then add water…it actually matters that you do it that way.
Week 4: Dinnerly arrives. I throw out some ingredients in my fridge that are looking pretty rough. I put recipes in containers and add them to the fridge. Busy week at work; I don’t make any Dinnerly meals.
Week 5: Dinnerly arrives. I purge the fridge of more old ingredients, but all the containers are full, and I don’t have any for new items. Cram new ingredients in fridge. There is literally no room in my fridge. I make 1 meal, and realize that (a) every recipe I’ve made has called for 1 teaspoon of finely chopped garlic, and that’s probably a key ingredient for cooking, and (b) I can actually do this cooking thing, though it seems like it takes forrrrr-evvvvvvv-errrrrrrrr to make a meal.
Week 6: Dinnerly arrives. I have a loooong workday, and my fridge is stuffed, so I don’t even bring the box in from the porch for 24 hours. When I do, I purge a bunch of food, but don’t feel like dealing with the containers, so I just cram all the ingredients in the fridge. Things fall out when I open the fridge door…every time I open the fridge door. But the recipes seem pretty good this week, and I cook 3 nights in a row – one recipe from the previous week (I can’t find 2 ingredients that are somewhere in the fridge, but the food tastes OK without them). I make a foot-high fireball when I shake a pan and oil spills onto the burner. I like 2 of the 3 meals I cook.
Week 7: I purge fridge before this week’s box arrives. I use containers for the new meals and find it easy to grab a container and make the recipe. I make 2 meals and enjoy them both. I find that chopping isn’t taking as long, and I’m faster to clean up the kitchen after. I’m starting to see some rhythms, and some things even seem familiar to me.
That’s the journey so far. Before I share some observations about how the “change process” is going so far, I should share that I think our schooling provides a useful framework for understanding change, learning, and growth. Here’s what that framework looks like:
- Pre-school and Kindergarten – very basic understanding, knowledge, and ability
- Elementary School – learning the basics, not much higher-level thinking
- Junior High – starting to see the bigger picture but still basic in that
- High School – able to function independently, becoming expert at some things
- College – higher-level understanding and functioning, fully independent and capable
- Grad School – superior expertise, able to make expert contributions and lead others
So, I would make the following observations about my becoming-a-cook change journey:
- It’s been very helpful for me to imagine that I am a kindergartener as I’ve started into the process. If I hadn’t had that attitude, I would have canceled the service by now and said, “I don’t have room in my life to be a cook.” 7 weeks in, I can say that that is wrong – I do have room to cook 1-2-3 meals a week. I don’t have room (or interest) to cook 5-6-7 days a week. Which leads to another point…
- The vision I have of not wanting to be a kindergarten-level cook anymore has been important to me accepting the extra cost in money and time that I’ve had to put in to learn to cook. If I didn’t have that vision of wanting more, I wouldn’t stick with it – it does cost more and take more time than just throwing veggie dogs in the microwave.
- I can start to see how cooking fits into my life. There are a few recipes that I liked and could do without Dinnerly’s help. I’m starting to learn how to use “extra” ingredients (1 teaspoon garlic!…plus onions, tomatoes, even vinegar) to make the food taste more interesting. I’m still very much a novice, but I understand the tools I must work within a way I didn’t before.
- There is a whole bunch of related stuff that happens around cooking – like buying the ingredients and organizing the fridge – that I’m horrible at. Those have their own growth curve, and I’m just a kindergartener with those. But as the cooking gets easier, those will get better, because I won’t have to take so much energy on the cooking part.
- My cost/meal is trending down, and in another month or two, I expect that I will be able to make all 3 recipes that Dinnerly sends me, each week.
- I’m actually eating good food that I enjoy! For all my look at cost and process and stuff…what’s important is that (a) I’m way less intimidated in the kitchen, and (b) I’m eating better. I doubt I’ll ever care enough about cooking to become great at it, but at least I’m not a kindergartener anymore.
So, let’s look at the overall cost of the change I’m making.
I’m guessing that the cost for me to get to the “high school” level of being a cook is going to be somewhere around $1-2K.
And my guess is that 1/3 of that will be completely wasted (just not cooking the recipes at all and throwing the food out), 1/3 will be the “extra” burden of my learning (taking longer than needed to make things as I learn them), and 1/3 will be what I’ll call “suboptimal meal experience” when the meal either cost more or was less enjoyable than my alternative options (e.g., eating take-out or just making pasta-and-butter).
If we say that the cost-per-meal before I was a cook was $5/meal, then I’m saying that my change cost is equivalent to 200-400 meals! That’s almost a year’s worth of dinners – and that’s way more than I would have guessed…which would have been more like 3-4 months of dinners.
Should it cost less? Yes…in theory. I should commit to it, and focus on it, and bring my better self to it. But that’s just in theory. In reality, I have to run my business and parent my kids and keep myself healthy with exercise and recharge with some social and rest time. And I just don’t have the energy I “should” for change with all of that going on – or, said a better way, I need to have realistic expectations for how hard change is when it’s not the only thing I’m working on.
Change is not cheap, which makes it all-the-more important to make sure that (a) the change is important and desired, (b) you’re ready for what and how it costs, so you don’t change your path because it looks “wasteful” or unsuccessful (e.g., there are going to be weeks when no recipes get made), and (c) you see your way through so that the extra cost isn’t wasted.
One of the precepts of the EOS program is, “The answer is in the room.” It’s a phrase that’s used to emphasize the importance of discussion in addressing important issues, and I am a full supporter of that idea.
The problem is, the phrase itself is not quite right.
WELL…SOME KIND OF ANSWER IS IN THE ROOM
A more accurate phrase would be, “An answer is in the room.”
And it’s the job of the CEO to know whether it’s the answer or an answer that is in the room – whether your team has the right stuff to understand and evaluate the issue and the options for solving it…or not. Because if they don’t, but they think they do, then you are wading into dangerous territory.
It’s not that dangerous if the issue is minor. But if it’s a major strategic decision…having the wrong answer is a big problem.
EVALUATING THE QUALITY OF YOUR TEAM’S ANSWER
So, how do you gauge whether you are getting an answer (a poor or bad decision) or the answer (a good decision)? Here are some questions you can ask:
- Have we seen this situation before? Or something similar? Or has someone on our team?
- Can we come up with a list of risks that would make our banker (or some other knowledgeable skeptic) proud for how pessimistic the list makes us appear?
- Can we come up with 3 strong options for handling the situation?
- Is there more than one person who is worried that the answer may not be in the room?
A CAUTIONARY TALE
Let me talk more about that last one. The biggest business mistake that I have witnessed was when a client decided that the answer was not in the room for them. They hired me to write a plan for a new initiative, discussed and agreed to the plan as a team…and then 2 weeks later the CEO came up with an alternative “short cut” approach.
That short cut ended up costing the company between $2MM and $10MM, depending on how much you count the indirect impact that decision had. At the time the leadership team was discussing the short cut, there were 3 members of the team who said, “We just paid for a plan, and we all said we liked the plan – why are we not following the plan? Why do we think we have a better answer than the plan now?” (Which is another way of saying, “The answer is not in the room.”)
HOW THEY GOT IT WRONG
Why did most of the team change their minds? Because the CEO had a long history of running and building the business, and the majority of the leadership team said, “If you think this is the right thing to do, we trust you.” What they missed was that the CEO had not pursued a strategy like this before – it was a new area for him, and it was more complicated than anything he’d worked on before.
The team needed to listen to the skeptics more – and there’s a lesson there for you, dear CEO, if you find yourself in a similar situation.
YOU BE THE JUDGE
If you’re a CEO listening to your team debate a topic, you have another role you need to play – you need to raise yourself above the discussion, and look down on it, and critique whether the sophistication of the discussion matches the complexity of the issue and the quantity of the resources you’re going to commit to the answer.
What do I mean by prioritizing your priorities? Why is it important? Why is it hard?
It’s fairly easy for any business to come up with a dozen ideas for improvement – and most businesses wouldn’t stop there, generating dozens of possibilities. The challenge for any leadership team is to pick the right priorities to focus extra attention on among all those many options.
It’s easy to say, “You should have 3 big rocks that you focus on.” It’s muuuuch harder to say, “These are the 3 rocks that will give you the best outcome.” Why is it harder? Because there are many variables to consider in coming up with the answer. I’ll highlight 2 as examples:
- What’s the balance between financial outcomes and intangible outcomes? You could work your staff hard for two years, get your financial results up, and then sell your business for great personal gain. But many small companies have more connection to their employees, and so are willing to support work-life balance at the expense of financial performance. In that case, you can’t just decide on priorities based on financial ROI.
- What if short-term success and long-term gain are not aligned? Often they aren’t! Short-term, it almost never makes sense to upgrade your systems. But if you never upgrade systems, that will eventually undermine your results. How do you balance those competing interests? How do you decide whether long-term payoff is the right thing to aim for now?
So this is a hard task. Why not just avoid it?
Because focus is a key part of success. Spread yourself too thin, and you won’t have the energy to see your initiatives through to success. As we all know, juggling 6 balls is far harder than juggling 3 balls.
Although there are tools that can help you prioritize your priorities, this is not something that is driven by tools. A SWOT or Gap analysis will not solve this problem. A 1-page sheet that puts long-term vision, annual goals, and quarterly objectives…will not solve this problem.
The center of this solution is wisdom and judgment. It takes experience, insight, creativity, foresight, and thoughtfulness to prioritize your priorities. Whereas operating a business is more akin to an industrial “assembly line” process, guiding a business is a craft that has as much art as science. That’s why venture capital looks foremost at people when considering an investment.
One of the great things about working with Stage 2 companies is that there is usually a strong team operating the business, and any gaps they have in operations can usually be filled with a toolkit from EOS or e-Myth or Rockefeller Rules. Whether they are a strong team leading the business depends a lot on their ability to prioritize their priorities and pick the right things to choose on.
I’ll be posting a self-assessment soon for you to gauge how your team is at leading your business. So…well…this is just the placeholder until I get that! But if you’re reading this and are interested, send me an email – or give me a call and I’ll share what I have in draft form.
Crain’s Detroit Business, which is now devoting regular coverage to southeast Michigan’s Second Stage companies, recently carried an article about forming a Board. Having just formed my own Board of Advisors, let me make a few recommendations that I wasn’t able to make in my comments in the article.
Start with your current advisors. The best place to look for initial members of a Board of Advisors is the cadre of informal and formal advisors that you already have. Simply formalizing the process, and bringing the advisors together, is a substantial step forward, and adding new (unknown) people into the mix is just as likely to undermine the purpose as help it. In addition, you will likely have some trial and error as you develop the Board, and it will be helpful to work through that with people who already know and like you.
Work with the Board to define its purpose. There is usually a general sense of how and why the company leader would like to use a Board. However, a Board is going to be most active and valuable if its members are fully engaged – and to get that, it is best to have the Board discuss how they think they can contribute, and what they would like to get from the experience.
Let the Board stretch you. Good advisors provide perspective that you don’t have on your own, and are effective at helping you counter-balance your strengths and weaknesses. If you put a group of advisors in the same room, the message is often times stronger and even more challenging for you. Check your ego at the door, remember that even leaders have weaknesses, keep an open mind, and do your best to accept and use the advice.
Manage group dynamics. Just because your advisors are all good on their own doesn’t mean that they will work well together. The topic of group dynamics should be part of the Board discussion from the start, and you should openly acknowledge that the chemistry of the Board is going to be important. You should also include team-building events or discussions that will help develop the chemistry.
Prepare to improve. Establish with the Board that its role and mechanics are likely to evolve as you learn more about how it works and how to use it. Involve the members in the improvement process, and solicit (and use!) their input about how the Board can be more effective.