Leadership and the art of Italian cooking

Oct 15 2012 by Duane Dike Print This Article

The typical process of converting theoretical concepts to practical application isn't all that difficult. Time consuming and at times frustrating, yes, but the process itself is fairly straightforward. In typical academic fashion, the steps from theory to practice are this: literature research, theory development, testing the theory via hypotheses, adjusting the theory, repeat process (sometimes an endless loop), and (finally) arriving at some level of comfort that the theory is ready for the real world.

The theory of Italian cooking, like Rome, wasn't built in a day. It constantly evolves as chefs try different ingredients (hypotheses) in various dishes (more hypotheses) until they're satisfied that the eating public will happily consume their creations (practice). They test their concoctions on friends before revealing their new culinary creations to the public. Chefs constantly test and create, sometimes spending years mastering the perfect plate.

We business leaders should practice the same care when developing new theories as chefs do with their recipes. Instead, we bark out decrees and wonder why employees greet our wonderful ideas with rolled eyes, sarcasm, and resistance. Quite possibly, every step along the typical business-rule-development-path is wrought with error.

Just as the dutiful chef (or scientist) researches existing theories of Italian cooking (through school or experience) before experimenting with the development stage (testing recipes), we business leaders should run our own due diligence research and discovery steps before ever presenting our theories to our critics (employees).

Theory Development and Receptive Employees

Business-related research is accomplished any number of ways, through studying literature, conducting focus groups, or discussing theory over drinks. And this is the step where most leaders trip-up, because the operating cultures they developed aren't idea-friendly or receptive to change.

One of the best ways to instigate change is to create blame-free cultures. As soon as employees feel a hint of fear of doing what they think is right for customers, you've lost the leadership battle. So what if a front line employee makes a decision that you feel might be too generous. Thank him/her for thinking of the customer, coach in ways to handle similar situations, and move on.

Employees and customers pretty much want to know they're being listened to and respected. Blame is simply a way of pushing fault on others. It destroys organizational emotional balance, shifts attention to negative actions, creates us versus them states, and destroys freedom of action. Blame is personal, not productive.

Hypotheses Testing

Whew, now that I got that out of the way, we can move to the toughest part of all: testing our hypotheses. Test your newfound ideas by presenting them to the people most effected, your employees. Don't dump your idea on the entire organization. Start with smaller groups, test for feasibility, then increase the application after adjustments. No memo that begins with, "Effective immediatelyÖ" is ever received well.

By practicing a typical theory to practice process, organizational members will eventually come to a position where they no longer fear change. The focus on change leadership is on the behaviors necessary to foster change receptive cultures. The simplicity of change leadership is the ability to think outward, a perspective which helps us see ourselves as others do.

Change Receptiveness

How members of organizations transform their thinking from flat line to inquisitive levels is a perplexing dilemma. The real result of change receptiveness is to shift the innermost elements of value, behavior, and beliefs. I've touted several times that the Kuhnsian (Kuhn, Structure of Scientific Revolutions, father of the paradigm shift) description of change is slow, almost unidentifiable shifts of opinion as a result of dialogue, vision, and relationships.

That means that leaders must also change (another slow process) from control minded to more mentor-like approaches. Unlike Mr. Spock of Star Trek fame, we don't always think in rational, logical ways. We're human beings and are influenced by human things like stereotypes, prejudices, and fear of looking like dorks.

So, instead of leaders thinking they must dream up organizational vision via some sort of white knight fashion all by themselves, they can test and adjust their ideas on their employees. Employees prefer more collective ways of pulling together organizational vision. One person is still in charge in a hierarchical structure (in most organizations), but the real learning takes place on the workroom floor, not necessarily in boardrooms.

Once a vision is set, it's OK to adapt it to ever changing environmental conditions. Adaptation receptiveness means that leaders must learn to swallow their pride and see their place as members of working teams. Leaders cannot be afraid to jettison strategies that no longer make sense (are out of balance with vision). When employee perceptions and corporate vision are not balanced, it's not the employee's fault. The weight of that balancing act lies wholly with leaders.

Happy Employees are Productive Employees

Leaders can only reach this new level of utopian-like outward thinking by constantly reminding themselves that they are responsible to the people of the organization and to their customers. I often remind myself that my house, cars, kids' college education, and lifestyle were all paid for by customers and clients.

A few days ago I was speaking to a group of employees and said, "You have the power to change a good experience to a great experience!" Power took on a less ominous connotation in this context. We have the power to make change, to make our working world a better, happier place. The result of our change receptiveness is increased productivity and quality because we know that happy employees are productive. Happy employees see, through behavior of their leaders, the personification of intended organizational culture and vision.

As Winston Churchill put it: "To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often."

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About The Author

Duane Dike
Duane Dike

Duane Dike is the manager of creative production for a large entertainment company in Southern California. He has a doctorate in management and organizational leadership and an MBA in management. He is a popular guest speaker for education and management groups on subjects related to innovation, leadership and thinking.