Why Good Management is like Italian Food

Originally posted in an economics blog to which I occasionally contributed; the entertaining yet now defunct Bringing Sexy Back To Economics

The whole point of Italian food is that it is simple. The ingredients should be easy to find, instructions loosely followed and the result a rich but straightforward flavour, which will vary slightly from kitchen to kitchen. The same dish cooked by different chefs will not produce identical results, but they will all be equally good, with their own little twists.

This is not unlike management styles (bear with me here). It’s not about a formula, applied and repeated across people, projects and companies. It’s actually just about the outcome.

I’ve never seen an Italian grandmother measure an ingredient going in to a food. She will use her instinct, and years of experience just seeing the right amount in her hand. She will stand over a pot and taste and smell it, adding what is necessary until the flavour is right.

Same goes for management. If you assemble your team, find a list of best practices and go through the motions, you will get nowhere. Similarly – and a common problem in management – if you were previously a producer promoted to (your level of incompetence) management. You might think “This is how I did my job and I have been successful, so everyone else should input the same formula and we’ll do great”.

It doesn’t work like that. Humans are all different. We are each incentivised and motivated in different ways. A good manager will work to the strengths of each, maximising the resources at his disposal and adding the relevant knowledge from his own experience. Food ingredients, as a matter of interest, are very much the same: try making the exact same dish with two different brands of cocoa powder and you will see what I mean.

You know where you want to be at the end, let’s say, a carbonara, or a chosen quantitative team result, and you know where you are now: 3 eggs, bacon and spaghetti, or a team of 5, 3 weeks of time and given budget. Now lead your people toward their strengths, deal with each depending on his preference, and be accountable for the outcome. You don’t create the flavours: your ingredients do. You simply mix ‘em all together.