Cooking up a Storm

Cooking up a Storm
By Arun Rao

Some wise man once told me: “The way you play is the way you work”. In my work with the several teams I have had the good fortune to watch closely, I have often been witness to this truth rising to the fore unfailingly.

And so it was, during the Friday of last week, when we were conducting a team building workshop for the senior leadership team of a corporate behemoth.

The challenge laid out to them was starkly simple: to cook a meal. The nine individuals were split into 3 groups, which were handed Rs.200 each. The only other things offered were a cooking vessel, a ladle, a cutting board and a knife. No ingredients, no cooking stove, nothing else. And ofcourse, before they started, their pockets were emptied out of any other resources that could possibly come in handy. The instructions were specific: to cook a full course meal – with a starter, a main course and a dessert.
A senior leadership team – dabbling every day in millions, being asked to cook a simple meal. Whats in it you wonder?

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This is where the story unfolds layer by layer. If there is one thing that is a constant in todays’ corporate world, it is the certainty of change & the spectre of ambiguity always casting a long shadow. So, back to the cooking, when the teams are thrown the challenge, how they confront the situation is a telling commentary on their approach to ambiguity.

“How can we do all that in just Rs.200?”, “Where do we get all the stuff we need to cook?”, “Where do we cook?”, “All this in just 3 hours?”, “But none of us is good at cooking!” – the objections, the resistance often flies thick and fast, at first. All of which is met with a friendly smile, a shrug of the shoulders – and a helpful line in encouragement from us as Facilitators: “All the very best!”

This is where reality begins to sink in…… “What we cook is what we have as lunch”, “We need to find a way to do this!”. There is a legendary story of Hernando Cortez the Spanish Conquistador who ordered his men to burn their ships soon upon landing in Mexico. The message was clear: there was no option of turning back. Needless to say, they won. Adversity sometimes can be the greatest motivator. And so it was with our corporate cooks – that after the initial rumblings were settled – and no way through was seen, the actual work of how to go about began to be discussed.

What generally happens next is perhaps the clearest reflection of team dynamics playing out. The natural tendencies of individuals quickly emerge. There are some who go into a “quiet-think” mode, silently figuring out what next to do, putting their thoughts together and then emerging back again to share with their groups. There are some who immediately get into “take-charge” mode – talking as they think, gathering everyone around and trying to bounce different ideas. There are some who would watch from the sidelines, waiting for a plan to emerge before jumping in to do their bit. And yes, there would also be some who wear an all-knowing smirk, twiddling their thumbs metaphorically & wait with an attitude that says, “Lets see where all this finally leads”. There would be some who would say, “Lets make a list of everything we need”, someone else who would say, “Lets go to the market and figure”. One task, different approaches – to an MBTI practitioner, it would be just the different preferences playing out so clearly as it would in any group.

Very soon however, a consensus and consequent plans, do emerge. These after all are people who make things happen in large organizations. The stage is now set for the next phase – moving from planning to actual execution. And even here, the same story – of one task, different approaches – plays out in delightful ways.

One group went by the straight rule book. Someone went searching for the nearest market, hitching rides along the way. Another group member went around in the search of a spot to cook. Yet another group member got busy in figuring out how to get a fire started.

In another group – one member approached the nearest house outside the hotel, offering to buy the vegetables in the refrigerator of the bewildered resident. “You can buy it at the market, no?” he was asked. But he pulled it off yet. A third group took a similar approach, but with the hotel pantry. Call it innovation or call it the Indian spirit of jugaad, the challenge of resourcing was well and truly taken up!

The clock ticked on and soon the 3 groups had 3 fires going on in close vicinity to each other. Ever wondered why industries tend to congregate into a certain region? Well, that’s a discussion for another day. But as the fires crackled under the makeshift stone stoves, the ticking timelines got the tempers outside occasionally flaring too.

“You were supposed to get the fire ready by the time we came back”, “Now that we have the fire ready, maybe you can also help in kindling it”, “But its not my job”, “Could you not cut the vegetables closer to the fire?”, “Don’t just stand there – lend a hand”.

Water always finds its level – and so it is said about teams. Eventually everyone found a role to do – some assigned, some assumed. And so as the vegetables simmered in the pots, the smiles, laughter and friendly banter, slowly returned again.

Soon it was time to lay out the food and present it to the entire team. The sense of achievement and pride in the team was palpable. There is nothing that bonds a team as well as shared success. We are often witness to teams going up in team cheers spontaneously at this stage! We then had the Chef-de-Presentatione of each team come up and conjure a wildly creative outpouring of what they had cooked up, that left everyone in splits!

In our work with teams, our constant search is for the elusive “team elixir”. What makes a group of people come together as a cohesive team we constantly wonder and explore. We don’t have the definitive answers as yet, but there are certain common themes that time and again appear:

  • A shared sense of purpose

(Its OUR meal!)

  • A shared sense of destiny

(If we don’t cook – ALL of us go hungry !)

  • A shared sense of responsibility

(I do THIS best – you do THAT best – but only together we can cook a meal !)

  • A shared sense of fun, play & camaraderie

(Lets try it! … So what if we go wrong!…. hahahaha!)

For sure there would be many more ingredients that go into building a good team – similarly as there would be many more ingredients that could go to make the cooking tastier. But if there is one over-arching lesson that the Cooking Challenge teaches, it is this: One cook can perhaps lay out a good dish, but if it’s a banquet you are after, you need a team.