Cool Your Cakes!

Nov 14, 2010 2 Comments by

People, People, People!  Project Management would be so much easier if it were not for the challenge of managing people, right? Today’s article will focus on the human side as we wrap up a list of project management best practices I’ve learned from the kitchen.

Context: The 1933 cookbook “All About Home Baking” suggested 6 rules for baking success that happen to apply very nicely to managing organizational change projects as well:

  1. Be Orderly
  2. Use Good Tools
  3. Choose Good Ingredients
  4. Measure Accurately
  5. Mix Carefully
  6. Know Your Pans & Ovens & How to Cool Your Cakes

Most of the work I’ve suggested you do as a part of the first 4 best practices involved fact-based project management.  (You can read about the first four in my earlier posts.) The 5th and 6th suggestions are all about people.

5. Mix Carefully. Mixing the ingredients of a recipe looks simple enough – just toss them into a bowl and stir, right?  The same should not be said about the primary ingredients of a change project.  People tend to react in unpredictable ways when tossed together and the mixing process may spill over the edges of your project if it’s not handled gracefully.

Lots of organizations say: “People are our greatest asset“, but unfortunately few companies actually live and work that way.  Most are driven by numbers and the average human being gets lost somewhere in the equation.  There’s one thing I have noticed however… Each time I’ve been a part of an intensely people-focused organization, (as an employee or a consultant), I’ve noticed that the business goals just seem to fall into place.  There must be something to this people thing…

So how does one master the mixing? Monitoring and reacting to the overall progress of activities in a project plan is one thing. Monitoring & caring for the overall health of a team is quite another. These two tasks require two very different sets of skills.  Keeping people mentally engaged and reasonably happy requires that you give them attention and an atmosphere where they can solve their relational challenges. Here are 3 techniques you may want to consider for mixing your ingredients:

  • Create a Structure to Succeed. Build a clear team structure with reporting lines and ample discussion opportunities.  Keep meetings crisp and to a minimum. Encourage hallway conversation. Don’t allow people to hibernate for days on end without interacting. Make it clear where folks should go if they get stuck.  Encourage safe, transparent reporting of problems and team members will be less tempted to use unproductive ways to get attention.  In kitchen terms: keep your ingredients in a nice big bowl and watch as you stir carefully so your stuff won’t end up on the floor.
  • Wander the Kitchen: I like to use the time-tested approach called “Management by Walking Around”. You don’t need to be in people’s faces every 5 minutes, but make sure they know who you are and that they feel comfortable sharing concerns… You’ll know you’ve got it down when they don’t feel obligated to chat each time you come by. There’s probably something wrong if  people clam up when you come around for the first time in 6 months and they start whispering “who’s THAT?”…
  • All Hands on Deck: Get the team together informally every few weeks or at whatever interval feels right.  I cannot emphasize how much regular “All Hands Meetings” can cut down on the negative aspects of the rumor mill.  Whether your change team has 4 members or 400, this synch-up activity can really help people feel like they know what’s going on.  The informal conversation this generates will also build trust between people engaged in a common cause. You can keep them short – 15 or 30 minutes – or go longer if it makes sense. You can couple all hands meetings with seasonal gatherings, milestone celebrations, informal recognition activities and progress updates just to keep people on the same page.  Every team that I’ve seen use regular meetings like this has benefited from the social and human interaction.  Most teams that nix the idea say things like “We have NO TIME for an All Hands Meeting – We’re knee deep in work and just trying to figure out what we’re supposed to DO on this project! We don’t need another meeting to celebrate progress because we’re not making any…”  I rest my case.

6. Know Your Pans and Ovens and How to Cool Your Cakes. Just as an unpredictable oven can ruin an otherwise well-prepared recipe, the pressure of project execution can often result in over-heating within your team. So as you execute your well-laid project plans, be sure to keep tabs on how well the troops are functioning as a unit to get work done.

It’s only natural that people who care about results will make an emotional investment in their work.  So when things get slightly off-track, they may react in emotional ways. That’s why it’s so important to know how to Cool Your Cakes.  Here are a few tips to deal with these challenges:

  • Get to know how your team clicks before flare-ups occur and they’ll trust you to intervene when things get tense.
  • Keep informal tabs on the team’s current interpersonal hot buttons – but avoid documenting any of these items on a published risk/issue log.
  • Ask about roadblocks you can help clear to make their work easier and more productive.
  • Avoid promising to “fix people” – instead look for opportunities to get disagreeing parties into the same room to work through things.  Offer to facilitate without choosing sides.
  • Watch for clues like increased talk about individuals and people questioning the intentions of others. The most productive teams describe challenges primarily in terms of outcomes and activities – as opposed to identifying who’s to blame.

Reducing the seeds of discontent can help keep things cool even under the intense heat and pressure of project delivery.  Ignoring the warning signs can result in a change project imploding within sight of the finish line.


Question for Chatter:

  1. What other preventable team issues have you seen flare up under the heat of project execution?
  2. How else can change managers identify and deal with potential team-related problems?

Change Agent Skills, Change Communication, Change Execution, Change Leadership, Team Dynamics

About the author

I help people and teams succeed with big changes... never a dull moment!

2 Responses to “Cool Your Cakes!”

  1. Steve says:

    Thanks for the comments Shan!

    I agree with both of your suggestions and have a few more to add based on some LinkedIn feedback to this post:
    – Regular sessions to “clear the air” help teams avoid bottling up frustrations.
    – Establishing ground rules for personal conduct can serve the team well downstream!
    – Establish effective meeting techniques that include agendas, feedback opportunities and tracking action items will help you avoid a lot of team issues caused by poor communication and follow-up.


  2. Dr Shan Rajegopal says:

    Hi Steve,
    Good tips and very much liked your analogy on cooling cakes. Two more ingredients for “cooking” will be:
    1. Acknowledgement of mutual dependency on and demonstration of trust for one another
    2. An acceptance of the reward system that will be shared

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