THE CASE OF TOO MANY COOKS
- Or the problems of group decision making
- How to choose who to listen to?
- Who to trust, and can you trust yourself?
When I first moved to London as a singer in search of a bright future, I was penniless for a while and in search of a day job. With time on my hands, I chose to explore free activities, like walking around town, reading books I'd borrowed from the library next to my house, singing of course, and this surprising new interest of mine: watching daytime cooking shows.
Circa 2000, Brits were decidedly infatuated with cooking. I’d grown up on stories perpetuated by my French mother, an excellent cook herself, that English people at large - including my parents’ friends - were terribly incompetent in the kitchen. So much so that when we were young children, she would go as far as feeding my brother and me before visiting said friends so as not to embarrass her should we refuse to eat what was on offer. Shrewd move, one that she liked so much that she enjoyed retelling the story regularly.
I’d never watched cooking shows before in my life. Why not? I already knew how to cook. I’d been my mum’s faithful kitchen helper since the age of 7 or 8 years old, so there wasn’t a question in my mind as to my abilities. But with time on my hands, I indulged in the discovery, and guess what, it was worth it!
TURNING THE CAMERA
Within a few years, the reality TV lens turned its attention to inside the kitchen, rather than only film the polished studio delivery of programs we’d been served until then.
Witnessing Michelin star chefs in the pressure cooker that is their kitchens was fascinating (and surprising because of how few women were involved). The military precision of their operations left me wishing we could borrow some of their organisational concepts. When pursuing excellence and when attention to detail is a must - generally a hallmark of the design and luxury fashion brands I work with - structure is essential and yet it’s often lacking.
This leads me to Gordon Ramsay, of ‘Kitchen Nightmares’ and ‘F word’ shame, whose MasterClass I enjoyed greatly last year. Maybe that’s why he’s the first person that popped into my mind as I started thinking of the saying ‘too many cooks’. I realised that maybe there was something to Gordon Ramsay’s style that I wanted to emulate in the running of my kitchen (or rather office/meetings). And by that, I don’t mean his cursing habits. 😬
Indeed, a part of me quite envied the way he was managing his kitchen line: with established authority.
Watching the processes behind the preparation of these Michelin starred meals reminded me of the work I have seen designers do in developing, researching materials, modelling and bending matter to bring their visions to life. The fashion world, however, is generally much more chaotic. I wonder whether the personality types - taking a guess here - are not quite the same as those who choose to step into these famous kitchens.
I see beauty in both models. The semi-controlled chaos of the fashion world - a generalisation of course, but one based on experience - suits more nautical metaphors: a ‘thrown into the deep end, sink or swim’ approach sometimes turned into an 'all hands on deck' management model. Periods of fast-paced creative effervescence pull everyone together, offering a chance of broader learning, working across departments and silos, even possibly stepping up into management, because those who take to steering the ship successfully are usually rewarded/promoted.
The case for being organised is less glamorous. Learning happens, but it’s fenced into a precise structure; it's boxed up, and the levels are neatly laid out, so everyone understands how and what their careers can evolve into. Once a skill has been mastered, there is a next step, another stage, an echelon to climb, and then another one after that.
KNOWLEDGE IS POWER
I was lucky to have been taught by two expert retailers who were exacting in their attention to detail. Everything always had to be perfect at Elmedia. This was my line kitchen apprenticeship effectively. Sue and Nicole were not easy to work with, but their hands-on precision was driven by the clarity of their purpose - making the customer's day (read my previous post) - so it was easy to get behind that vision and follow their lead. Did they nurture my entrepreneurial spirit or was this part of my character already? I'm not sure. What they did was instill in me a taste for structure and processes for clear, purposeful decision making.
This brings me back to my early days in retail in London. The lack of organisation of the environment I was brought into led me to naturally step up: within three months of arriving in the city, I was offered the manager position in the luxury boutique. The PR piece came about for the same reason. Journalists and stylists were calling to complain their requests hadn't been taken care of, which was someone else’s job. Since the work was not being done, I chose to come to the Belgravia boutique early in the morning to deal with the PR requests in the tiny office under the sidewalk before starting my day: after all, it’s hard to offer a luxury customer service experience when being told off by couriers in full motorcycle gear, helmet on, standing in the middle of the shop floor.
Essentially, I created the structure I needed to do my job to the best of my abilities. I could do that because I’d been taught how to. Sure, I didn’t know everything about business, far from that. I learned people management the same way I did many other things in the various roles I filled: by being thrown into the deep end, with all the joy you can imagine it brings.
TOO MANY COOKS IN THE KITCHEN-OFFICE
How does organisation come to be created and the meeting room model - what happens sans clear purpose.
If you've read me before, you know that I am interested in intention, alignment, purpose and values. Over the years, I became more attentive towards the motivations of the various people in the (meeting) room. I shockingly noticed that each was not only different but often divergent. Why is that a problem? Well, different could be parallel to the main objectives, divergent means that while stemming from the same source-goal, this new line of vision could chart a very different course for the project or business.
While each had a defined business objective, they were misaligned with each other. Here’s an illustration of various voices and narratives in the room:
- The voice of the CEO, who thinks will this bring a good ROI, will this bring growth and revenue to present to the shareholders?
- The artistic director/creative voice, who thinks: ‘my idea is awesome, just get on board already!’
- The Sales or Retail teams, whose motivation is to make their numbers, no matter what.
- The PR and communications team, who in the luxury arena want a soft touch, carefully crafted storytelling and are against commercial tactics, considering long-term brand value above all else.
- The Customer Experience or Customer Care team who want autonomy and feel like they should lead, after all, they understand the customer best of all.
- The Tech and IT teams, who’d rather be anywhere but that room and to be left alone to just do their thing.
- The digital marketing and social media team, who want for the executives to follow their guidance, for once!
- The voice of the intern or junior team member, who thinks that this is dull, these dynamics are weird and they’d rather be somewhere else.
Then there is the founder’s voice, who's not sure who to listen to, because generally they run on instinct and sometimes they simply follow the last - or loudest - opinion they heard. Because, well, too many cooks or too many voices create confusion.
This multitude works to their own personal or departmental goals. Even in small businesses where one wears many hats, I have seen this happen. In a hierarchical leadership model, the final decisions are taken by the CEO or Founder, despite the fact that they may not have sufficient understanding of the questions at hand. And let’s face it, when digital and communication is involved, it’s often the case.
So what I’m saying here, if I follow my own metaphor, is that the Top Chef really is often lacking the qualifications to make decisions about the way to serve their own food and even how to approach or address their customers. That seems problematic, now, doesn’t it?
ALL VOICES IN THE ROOM ARE NOT EQUAL
With too many opinions in one room, some are discarded but how that choice is made is often arbitrary.
And that’s perfectly normal, that’s how we have evolved as human beings, as brilliantly explained by Dan Ariely in his book ‘Predictably Irrational’:
“Standard economics assumes that we are rational... But, as the results presented in this book (and others) show, we are far less rational in our decision making... Our irrational behaviors are neither random nor senseless- they are systematic and predictable. We all make the same types of mistakes over and over, because of the basic wiring of our brains.”
In my career, I’ve been exposed to many situations in which one or two people’s voices were deemed to be above the rest. Whoever else was in the meeting was asked to give an opinion, but they weren’t listened to or taken into account.
The biggest hurdles appear when there are not only too many people involved in making decisions but also when they are, per the above, misaligned on the business objectives. At some point, tempers may be lost ‘a la Gordon Ramsay’ when frustration comes to a boiling point. Culture (company or at large) and cultural biases are also at play in our interactions, even though we rarely take the time to explore it for ourselves or even as a group. I’ve been considering what would be the new rules we could apply to transform the decision-making process, some borrowed from existing strategies or, of course, from mindfulness.
EXPLORING OUR BIASES
First, we need to understand ourselves better. Right? With self-awareness comes self-knowledge. We are all deeply influenced by biases, results of unconscious observation, deeply embedded in our brains. We have big blind spots basically about how we view the world and the people around us.
We have preconceptions and inner narratives that are below the line - unconscious - which range from race, gender, age, looks (facial hair, clothing) and what we’ve heard said about a colleague in the break room (or on IG or WhatsApp). So as a result, we constantly make decisions based on preconceptions, stereotypes and snap judgements.
Knowing this, what can we do to help better listen and try to uncover our biases and become better listeners to the voices around us? Here are some starting points:
Let’s ask ourselves what stories we are telling ourselves about the people in the room.
Let’s consider what makes them seem trustworthy or untrustworthy?
Next time we hear dissonant voices, let’s consider our own point of view, let’s be mindful of our thoughts and the judgements we could be making.
Pause. Let’s commit to deep listening, and listen with our whole self.
Let others be heard.
Let’s encourage others to listen deeply.
And when we feel challenged and uncomfortable with someone else's opinion, let’s examine the why behind that feeling.
Finally let’s bring some empathy into the room, to understand where others may be coming from.
I will finish with this line which beautifully concluded Cheryl Strauss Einhorn’s Ted Talk, which sums up my point better than I could myself:
“True mindfulness is not just about turning inward. It’s also about opening ourselves outward, to discover and collect the wisdom of others.”