The Recipe Challenge

Everything operates in cycles; the trick is knowing where we are in it – at the start, growth phase, peak, decline or the end game. When there are so many different cycles, with varying timespans, from hours to centuries, it takes concentration to notice them. Often, it’s easier to see them looking back, which is of interest only to historians.

Forty years ago, as a young marketing director in a big (for the time) food company, we spotted the emerging trend to ready meals as more women moved into work, work patterns changed, and traditional mealtimes evaporated. So we decided to target the upper end of the market with high-quality offerings, including fresh, chilled pasta and sauces – a first at the time.

We engaged a well known Italian Chef and hit the development kitchens. The dishes he produced were just stunning; the only problem was, he didn’t use recipes. His talent, experience and passion made them redundant, and he altered preparation and cooking according to the weather (trititincundurum pasta wheat is like that, apparently.) His mastery of pasta was a real problem because we could not scale up to production without a recipe, a process, and acceptable variation parameters.

So, in the end, we compromised. We did what sensible business people did – a number of assessed runs and created a recipe and process in the middle of the distribution range. It was a great success, with plaudits, awards, and bonuses all round. It was also depressing because Andreano (The Chef) and I knew the difference between what he prepared fresh and what we were offering. It felt like a hollow victory. And, of course, it got worse. As competition entered the market and margins came under pressure, we did what always happens when there is a recipe – we gave to the buyers. Lots of “salami-slicing” ensued – cheaper materials, extended shelf lives, “fine-tuning” quantities and all the other things that happen when the distance between creator and producer increases.

It strikes me that the same happens to businesses – there is a point where the creativity and commitment of the founder turn into a business model and commitment to investors. Then, the creator’s mastery gets handed over to the MBA’s and other professional processors who have a different agenda to the founders, and before we know it, we have a commercial success that is a shadow of the original that triggered the success.

That is why it is essential to know where we are on the cycle of our careers. Are we at the creative founder stage, doing something that excites and drives us, the growth phase where we gradually but inexorably lose control? Or perhaps the peak where we get the money at the price of sacrificing our originality, talent and craft or heading towards the decline phase, hanging on in there hoping headhunters or retirement finds us before failure?

We are all ingredients in something as we go to work today. Facing facts as to what it is may be uncomfortable, but it is essential.

None of us wants to be part of a ready meal when we can be a signature dish.

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