Baking a batch of life's lessons

On Excellence

A COUPLE OF HOURS in a hot kitchen can teach you as much about business and management as the latest books on re-engineering or total quality management. That's my view, anyway, after a try at baking Christmas cookies.

Here then, fresh from the oven, are 11 lessons for life - and for enterprise:

1) Engagement. Watching others helps, but you have to get your hands dirty.

I hadn't made cookies for years, so first I watched a friend do a few batches - and thought I was learning something. I suppose I was, but nothing really clicked until my hands were covered with flour.

The lesson, especially for trainers, is this - cut down the lectures and get people involved very quickly in doing the "real stuff".

2) A plan. I'm not keen on planning in general, but a time-tested recipe can be a godsend. First, it is roughly "right". More important, it gives you the confidence to get started.

The lesson? Any plan is a help: it gives people the sense they aren't flailing aimlessly.

3) Art. The plan is an outline, not Holy Writ. All plans, including recipes, are made to be tinkered with - and, eventually, torn up. Baking cookies, designing software and financing property are all art. And it is the artists - not the slavish followers of others p[eople's recipes, who wind up in the world's halls of fame.

Lesson: Blind devotion to any plan is downright dumb.

4) Trial and errors. Yes, I had watched a master at work (or at least a pretty good cook), but in my first hour of hands-on work, even with instructions close at hand, I made dozens (hundreds is more like it) of mistakes, large and small. And in business life, real life and cookie- making, error is the fuel that drives you.

Lesson: Don't "tolerate" mistakes. Embrace them.

5) The same mistakes. Some people say, "Mistakes are OK, but don't make the same mistake twice."

Rubbish!

I had made virtually the same errors, in something as relatively simple as cookie making, over and over . . . and over again.

Lesson: Nobody ever did anything (interesting) right the first time, or the 5lst time.

6) A sense of humour. I was awkward at the start (and at the finish.) I had turned the kitchen into a disaster area. Kids and adults made their day laughing at me (or so it seemed).

Experimentation - the nub of life and business - depends on learning to laugh at yourself.

The lesson? Learning is precisely about making a fool of yourself - often in public.

7) Perseverance. An ability to laugh at yourself, and to suppress your ego, is key - but so is steely eyed determination. Sure, it was only a matter of baking cookies, but I did want to do it right.

The lesson here is that a winner wants to do everything well - no matter how trivial it may be - and that takes focus and unrelenting drive.

8) Perfectionism. Certainly the kitchen was a mess. Yes, I was the object of ridicule. But to master one's craft requires nothing less than pain- in-the-butt perfectionism.

Most people see artists, and other creative types, as scatterbrained, in general. I'm sure there are scatterbrained artists (and bakers), but their work doesn't end up in museums (or in cookbooks).

The lesson? Creativity and perfectionism are essential handmaidens.

9) Ownership. It had been made clear to me that I was responsible for the Christmas Eve dinner cookies. There were no back-ups. A long tradition of Christmas ginger cookies was hanging on my frail (ie, incompetent) shoulders. The monkey was squarely on my back. So I did the job.

Three lessons here: a) no ownership, no passion; b) no passion, no perseverance; c) there is no half ownership.

10) Accountability. When I had helped, the day before, with some previous cookie making, I had screwed up the baking time - twice. Now I was on my own. That should have made things more difficult. But, to the contrary, I was so attuned to the task that I didn't come close to blowing it.

The lesson is - until you're engaged in all aspects of a job, you don't fully engage.

11) Taste. OK, I'll brag a bit. I made good cookies. But not great cookies.

Greatness takes practice - and exquisite taste. I may or may not practice more, but I doubt I will ever become to baking what Tom Clancy is to techno- thrillers.

Lesson? If we want great products, we first need to find, attract and retain some great creators. Period.

TPG Communications

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