Thomas is the founder and there are four other individuals which share his passion for creating this “start up” school.
The experiment in cooking among Thomas, Neil, Jonathan, Franklin and Matt revolved around their individual interest in food and passion for new venture planning. Each of the members of the team had varying interests in the culinary arts and coalesced around a few common business interests; social entrepreneurship, recreational cooking, and business management.
Thomas had an outright passion for traveling, cooking and entertaining. In truth, Tom was the quintessential passionate entrepreneur. He is well versed in different sauces, wines, cheeses and cuisines. Furthermore, he loves entertaining his friends with dinner parties.
Puzzlingly, Jonathan doesn’t share Thomas’ love for food. He wasn’t an ‘eater,’ as Tom would loudly proclaim in business planning meetings. Nevertheless, Jonathan was 100% behind Tom’s idea because he witnessed a unique opportunity to belong to a team or group which had a strong inertia behind a blossoming idea. Jonathan knew that money could be made and fun could be had as a part of his daily job and life. These job characteristics attracted him because he found them to be largely absent from his former corporate world experiences.
Neil enjoyed both cooking, and problem solving, which is why he sought this team. He gravitated towards large problems and loved the adrenaline of being part of a project which could fail and take down everyone’s career. The volatile nature of start-up’s fueled his interests in Tom’s school.
Matt loves leading teams and was the natural ‘showman’ of the group. Despite the formal title, he had a persona to simply take charge, align people with tasks, set vision, respectfully delegate responsibility, and resolutely navigate disputes.
Franklin enjoys the implementation of ideas and day to day management aspects of the school. Like Neil, he thrived in the challenges of ‘starting the engines.’
Each member of the team came from various backgrounds. Neil is a technologist and an engineer. Jonathan is an ex-entrepreneur who owned his own bar. Matt is a former US Marine. Franklin is a well traveled, deep water scuba dive instructor. Lastly, Thomas was once a marketing wizard in the world of credit card campaigns.
Although Neil had worked for a start up company once, none of them had 10 years of deep experience in any area. As counterintuitive as it may seem, in a start up environment, too much experience or establishment can often times be a barrier to the flexible nature of these types of new ventures.
Their collective challenge was to successfully innovate in an area which is rigid to innovation and rife with challenge. Many of these challenges are related to the management of people. A school, after all, is largely about managing people. How does one innovate in a cooking school when the business is more about people and less about technology? Having our business processes within automated Excel sheets, a facebook group or a sleeky web form with recipes can only go so far. So, how does one really out-manage other cooking schools? Those were some of the questions Matt, Tom and the other founders pondered as they spent busy nights in breakout type conference rooms.
However intriguing it appeared, Tom's idea was just an idea. Without the proper financing, marketing, strategic decision making and talent management, the golden goose Tom had in his mind would never lay any eggs.
Early on, it was essential that the team achieve a level of trust, management structure, and momentum to make it through the first of a few laps in a lifestyle-oriented, medium growth business. Their interpersonal relationships needed to harmonize with their business intelligence like the butter, flour, salt, yeast, milk and eggs harmonize in a flaky french croissant. Without this level of mental collection, their business idea would easily sour into nothing more than the run of the mill culinary school with less than average profit margins and shallow market penetration.
Their innovations and solutions were within the domain of business leadership and organizational behavior.
Before Tom founded the team, he created a seemingly strange first brainstorming meeting. He called the meeting at 11 pm and it was open to many people. Only a few showed up.
Throughout the entire plan phase process, Tom realized the importance of traditional planning but also kept the core concept and mission of the original idea in the back of his mind. “The idea of the school was for enthusiasts,” he claimed. He plainly stated, "It's designed for people who ENJOY food but don't have the time or money to go through a career-changing, certificate program. That enjoyment and zest for life has to be part of this planning process if we're going to succeed. We can't simply lock ourselves in a conference room and talk it out. Let's go do some enthnographic research. Let's take a one-time, three-hour class at a different type of school and see what works and what doesn't. I've done something like it before, and it's fun! But unless we take it together, we're never going to see, feel and understand the same things," he passionately stated.
The non food lover, Jonathan, was sold. "I'm in!" he declared.
"Sign me up," stated Franklin.
Action 3: Taking the work out of work:
In seeking balance, planned items were routinely revisited and assigned timelines after every meeting. Every closing of a meeting ended with, "What do we have to do before the next meeting?" This was a trite but effective best practice that everyone had gleaned from their former corporate lives. This elementary level of planning didn't undercut the basic free flowing structure of innovating in a start up environment, it actually liberated the individual to think even more broadly when milestones were clearly defined and assigned to the appropriate individuals. However, they all understood that over management usually stifles creativity. They all knew that bureaucracies give birth to senseless, disorienting, menacing complexity within the plan phase. They knew they would fall into the abyss of simply being managers of operational processes if they didn’t sidestep this impending danger. Their meetings had an agenda but it never began with it. Tom would just begin by saying that he thought of some ideas last night and wanted to share them. It also helped that nobody felt threatened by performance evaluations, job etiquettes, street credibility or the politics of meetings at big corporations. There is an ego-centric bias in group work where people inherently feel that they did more work than the others in their group. If you don’t have performance evaluations measuring each others contributions, you don’t have this problem.
They were all friends behind an idea. Nobody had a boss or a line of management. Their meetings were never bookended by Microsoft Outlook’s calendar-start and end times. To them, the concept of time with respect to their individual tasks was equally as senseless.
Action 4: Trust:
The over-management idea was extended to communication. "Keep idea related email chains open and only respond after careful internal deliberation," was Neil’s motto. They gave each other trust through respectfully sharing ideas. The trust was implicitly built by equal sharing of the risks and rewards. They all had an equal amount to gain as well as lose. When one knows the level of interdependence among group members, they know the incentive to cheat or compete as well as the incentive to cooperate or provide aid. Communicating in an honest manner allowed them to create value for all instead of capturing it individually. Often times, one would hear meetings where someone would say, “what do you need to get your analysis, research or action items completed?”
They also wanted to increase complexity in the project a slight bit. Tom naturally wanted to do everything possible with this idea, including custom granite workstations that reminded the students of their own home kitchens. Jonathan wanted to have cuisines from around the world and Matt wanted to have relationships with chefs in various famous restaurants early on.
The first challenge they faced as amateurs was to innovate. Franklin and Tom quickly decided that they needed a local celebrity chef to give their brand some cache. This thought triggered a domino like series of other questions and thoughts which exploded throughout the conference room. How much do we pay him? Does he get equity participation? How much oversight do we give him or her in the management of the school? How many classes does he or she teach?
Neil interjected, "innovating in this market may not mean adding more, it could be subtracting from what the existing schools are doing. If the high end degree program schools are overshooting a large customer base's demands, why not go down into that market to fulfill these customers’ needs. What if instead of a celebrity chef, we hire local mothers, aunts and grandmothers, as instructors to teach courses."
Jonathan intervened and said, "local buy-in would be largely important in fueling the element of social entrepreneurship,” an early goal of the school.
"Hiring local culinary experts, in their native cuisines or family recipes, would be one way to preserve a city’s cultural identity & heritage. The local dishes food would bond people with places."
"Many family recipes and ingredients are ingrained within a culture and custom which is often absent within formal culinary education," stated Neil. It's usually the tacit, or unexpressed knowledge which is worth so much value in most business industries and practices and yet it is the most overlooked as we rush for innovation and fail to preserve.
The debates and fighting ensued with Jonathan and Neil pitted against, Tom and Franklin. Each side was so committed to their ideas that they failed to listen to the other side. A stark contrast from his military days, Matt was now a participative leader rather than an autocratic one. He now saw value in the social development of each team member because each member could make or break the success of the project for all. Employee turnover would also be immensely difficult this far along in the process. Lastly, removing and replacing someone also risked an already congenial group environment and introduced the potential for a more poisonous and less dynamic team.
Matt requested a one to two day recess in which each side created a strategy supporting their idea. He requested quantified data, hard or soft (based on family and friends surveys) and a well organized presentation. He essentially was willing to hear both sides but in a methodical and reasonable manner. He also brought in a non biased venture capitalist and entrepreneur to give them suggestions. The structure which Matt was proposing was essential. Simply amplifying imagination and creative ideas in the absence of any basic structure can often lead one down an un-escapable path of never being able to separate the golden eggs from the plain white ones.
The benefits of having a 'melting point' for each person on the team goes without saying. A melting point is the reference point on which a leader “turns up the heat” on an individual. Without knowing this level, potential is often unused and change is a more distant and fleeting act. Our leader zeroed into each person’s personal life to find out all our commitments and schedules. In turn, we were expected to be completely honest with him. This was not a problem because initial buy-in was already formed early on. By working together on past projects, he was able to accurately place the right amount of load and stress on each person.
For example, a normal manager usually knows these levels by saying to themselves, "Neil has to travel this upcoming weekend and will have to miss certain planned activities but I know that Neil performs well up to the level of having three major tasks related to research, documentation and analysis. If I place a fourth assignment on him, he probably won't respond anymore but might even take the load out of fear of disappointing me, producing mediocre work all around.”
We measured success by hard metrics: How close we came to our timelines and deadlines. Do the pro-forma financial statements all balance well? We also measured success using soft metrics: How happy were we in this project? Do we feel we were working towards the original mission or do we feel cheated in joining this project? Were our basic motivations for working satisfied?
* What Tom was doing by taking a "field trip" was gauging goal alignment. At this point in the process he was also cementing an abstract, core marketing positioning statement into the “daily grind of life” at this company. He realized that early on, a “Sam Walton- type” foundation to leadership was effective. He was reiterating a consistent message to reconnect people with ideas. He was more than enlisting or staffing, he was goal aligning people.
* The late night meeting was Tom's manner of gauging the importance and likelihood of commitment.
*The varied background of everyone led to a higher probability of disagreements. Tom knew this fact. Often, a 1 hour meeting would turn into a 3 hour meeting with nothing resolved by the end.
* Matt's "battle-day" had all the fireworks to solve dissent. He had full resources allocated to each side with prep time and training. He gave them a level battle-field and then included an outside 'expert' to assist in outcome and scoring. Matt was helping everyone on the team "have a voice, and communicate it. He was allowing them to establish their own belief in their idea" A well known fact that believing in yourself helps others believe in you, Matt gave people the chance to believe in themselves and their ideas.
*Team formation: The eclectic background of everyone on the team gave a non standard manner to approach problem solving, a key process in innovating.
*Barriers were eliminated because no titles were established among team members this early on in the start up phase. While someone in the group was more established at dealing with financial statements, this didn't preclude them from expressing ideas.
*Trust was formed and incubated by knowing the level of interdependence and having equal stakes to lose and gain in the success or failure of the project.
*We introduced a moderate level of complexity early on. Analogously, we weren’t trying to simply compete on ‘price’ with one another. We knew that when complexity in the project is reduced people are more competitive (a risk to establishing trust) because situations are simple to solve individually. For a company to succeed, you sacrifice your own interest for the greater good when you can’t succeed alone. Complexity barrs individuals from being lone wolves and creates pack animal mentality
*Knowing the likelihood of disagreement, the likelihood of commitment, the degree of goal alignment, the barriers to trust and the methods of dispute resolution, Matt was equipped with the essential tools needed in a new model of business leadership.
Our professor voted on our project over all the other presentations in class and we received an "A"