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Can a Cookbook Be the Best Guide to a Values-Based Organization?

For me as a writer of business books, it’s a sobering experience seeing how few business books sell in North America compared with the latest trending cookbook. Our success is measured in the tens of thousands; theirs, in the hundreds of thousands and beyond.

I’m not immune to the attraction of cookbooks that offer quick, easy recipes and beautiful pictures. One of my favourites of the last few years is Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, written by the effervescent Samin Nosrat, beautifully illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton, and brought to documentary life by Netflix.

I admire the premise of its structure: identify core elements, then develop examples that illustrate and reinforce those elements. It’s what I strive for in all that I create for Box of Crayons. For instance, our coaching principles are Be Lazy. Be Curious. Be Often. Everything we teach flows from them.

While procrastinating— I mean, researching for my new book (target pub date: February 29, 2020, btw), I flipped through Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat and thought I might be able to make the leap between the philosophy behind those cooking elements and how one might think about building a values-based organization. 

Salt

The first of the four elements of good cooking, according to Nosrat, is salt, and she really lays it on the line. We amateur cooks hopelessly under-season the food we cook, and we miss out as a result. Salt heightens flavour. It not only unlocks the potential flavours of a food but also reduces any bitterness.

Most organizational values are like under-seasoned food. Full of possibilities but bland in the serving. If I were to pin you down right now and demand that you tell me the values of your organizations, you’d probably struggle to remember them all. That’s because most organizations offer up abstract, ho-hum, who-could-object values. A global pharmaceutical company claims that integrity, respect for people and transparency are what matters; a bank — service, teamwork, responsibility, diversity and integrity. To roll with the cooking metaphor, such lists are like vegetables that have been boiled for so long that, even though they’re edible, there’s not much nutrition left to them.

Salt up your values and bring them to life. Craft phrases with verbs in them, rather than using just single words. Another bank professes the guiding principle of “Take only risks we can understand and can manage.” That’s much more effective than merely “Responsibility.”

 

Fat

Nosrat’s second element of good cooking is fat, which she explains has the role of carrying and prolonging flavour. It’s what gives you that mouthfeel of satisfaction, whether it be through butter or lard.

The culture-change equivalent is the description of behaviours connected to each value. Without clarity on how any one value translates to specific ways of showing up in the world, you struggle to know how to move from idea to action.

A creative agency brings its Audacity value to life by saying, “Think big. Hate mediocrity. Seek breakthroughs.” Ah, got it. That direction on behaviour helps me understand what I need to do to be audacious.

 

Acid

Nosrat describes acid as salt’s alter ego. It’s not just about brightening things up; it’s about balancing flavour and increasing appeal by offering contrast. It helps provide light and shade, yang and yin.

Values become much more usable when balance is provided. So, not just what you should do, but what you should not do. Often the “Don’t do …” goes unspoken, and that means one of the guardrails is missing. One of my favourite examples is also the guiding principle of a global design firm: “Talk less, do more.”

In Do More Great Work, I describe an exercise for identifying your best self. It’s called This/Not That and has its roots in brand-positioning work I’d done earlier in my career. It’s a short list of paired behaviours. In each pair, the “This” is you at your best — the salt, if you will — whereas the “Not that” is the acid, the clarity of what you’re like when you’re off your game.

 

Heat

The elements of salt, fat and acid together create the harmony you want in your values. As Nosrat suggests, the goal is to “harmonize these three notes.” Then apply heat.

“Heat is the element of transformation,” says Nosrat, and whether it’s applied directly through flame or indirectly through hot water or steam, magic happens. Flavours meld and transform. Textures shift. New flavours emerge.

Heat is the change process needed to introduce the values into an organization and embed them. Laminating the phrases on posters won’t generate much heat. Building them into performance management may (and usually does) increase the temperature. But it’s embedding them into everyday ways of working that allows you to obtain the optimum temperature.

One of MacNaughton’s drawings in the Heat section of the cookbook is that of the perfect grilled cheese sandwich. How do you manipulate the heat so you achieve that ideal: crisp and brown on the outside, melty and chewy on the inside? (And why do I now have a craving for grilled cheese, I wonder?) You, like me, have probably come to realize that it takes time to master. It takes practice.

So too with embedding values. The pressure of daily organizational life generates the heat that brings the values to life — or ruins them. Nosrat shares that great cooks do not look at the source of the heat but at the food as it transforms. They come to know by look and touch when a steak or a cake is “just right.” To be successful champions of change, we need to do the same. We need to keep checking to see how the values are sticking or not sticking, changing behaviour or not changing it, becoming integral or not.

 

Cook On!

Values-based organizations are improved organizations, but only if the values are actually the basis for how people behave. That’s why culture eats strategy for breakfast. Make your organization better by having values that actually work, that actually become the bedrock of how you work and how you behave. Get beyond the bland by applying the elements of salt, fat, acid and heat to making them real and tasty.

By Michael Bungay Stanier, Founder, Box of Crayons

4 Responses to Can a Cookbook Be the Best Guide to a Values-Based Organization?

  • Mary G Bankston

    Excellent post! One of your best. You really brought the ideas to life. Thanks.

  • Amy Faeskorn

    Michael, I love how creatively and succinctly you connected the metaphor of cooking with leadership. I haven’t read Nosrat’s book yet, but it certainly is, ahem, hot at the moment!

    It’s so true that we rarely stop to ask ourselves if our team/group/organization is acting from a values-based perspective. Cooking requires that same kind of focused attention and reflection, and this piece is a great reminder to connect back to the “why” before moving forward.

    Thank you for this original, thought-provoking piece!

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