What Project Management Can Learn From Cooking

Take a look at the two lists below:

Lemon Tart
6 Eggs
125ml Double Cream
250g Icing Sugar
Juice and Zest of 4 Lemons
100g Butter
175g Flour
Automation of Engineering Analysis Functions
1 Full Time C++ Software Developer
1 Part Time Project Manager
1 Development Laptop
Department Engineering Reference Books
Customer Work Specification

We can see that both are used in the preparation of work but that the end results will be very different; one will make a dessert and the other a software product.

Your expectations of how the two will run may also be different, if you have experience baking tarts or managing software projects. Generally, I assume that the cooking will go much more smoothly than the software development. The lemon tart might not be right first time but something strange would be happening if after several attempts it becomes clear that nobody is actually sure what a “lemon tart” is.

Yet this is exactly what happened to me during the software project described above. I had to go back to the beginning with the customer just to understand what they really expected to be delivered. Things that both sides had assumed were obvious, were not, and it took a long process to realise that the end result was was not well defined.

Which got me thinking, even if cooking and software projects are very different things, is there any common ground between the two? Is there a reason that I assume cooking is easier than project management and can we draw any lessons from comparing the two?

What Cooking and Project Management have in Common

Clearly many things are different; you can bake a cake 50 times before you get it right if needed, a luxury that cannot be applied to project management. Yet I think project management and cooking do have things in common:

  • Neither is an exact science; there are no equations that define how much salt should be added or which team members will work well together
  • Both mix repeatability and uniqueness; no two projects or recipes are identical, but there are often big similarities.
  • Experience is important to both; beginners make bad project managers and cooks

To summarise I would say that both cooking and managing projects are not easy and the success of both depends a lot on personal judgement. So it would be interesting to look at a few comparable situations from that perspective.

The Right Ingredients

If there is no flour, the cook doesn’t say “we can recover later”

I’m guilty of this all the time, at the beginning of a project who wants to wait for everything to be in place before starting? Or maybe my manager asks me to save time and start now “unofficially”? Yet there is a reason that a project charter should be completed at the beginning of a project and not in the middle. Cooks are much less tolerant of rearranging the process steps.

Tasting During Cooking

If the food is too salty, the cook doesn’t say “let’s keep monitoring the situation”

The point in tasting the food before it is finished is to see if it is progressing as expected. We do this all the time in project management, its normally called “monitoring and controlling”. Yet in my experience the controlling part comes harder than the monitoring. I’ve lost count of how many projects I’ve seen with status “amber” which generally seems to be code for we will wait for the project to go really wrong before we try and fix it. If you know that something is not right, even if it isn’t a big deal, isn’t it your job to find options to fix it? Cooks are much less accepting of inaction.

Managing Expectations

The cook knows what the customer has ordered

I think it is much easier to reach a common understanding about food compared to a software package, partly because cooking can also draw on a lot of personal experience and culture to help define what we expect. Consider how a restaurant menu or recipe may list for each dish the ingredients, describe how it is prepared and even have a photo. You may still get a curry that is spicier than expected, but nobody is going to get a salad. Nevertheless, just because it is easier doesn’t change the fact that cooking does a better job of managing our expectations compared to a typical project and a cook wouldn’t start work without a common understanding of what is to be done.

Closing Thoughts

Cooking is simpler than project management so it surprises me that cooking seems to be “stricter” about defining and sticking to a plan. I’m not sure if that’s because the effects of mistakes are more visible in a smaller project or because that same “smallness” simply provides fewer chances to do things other ways. Still perhaps the simplest way to ensure a successful project is to stick to the plan?

Footnote: the full lemon tart recipe is here, the trick is to know when to take it out of the oven. Highly recommended.

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1 Response

  1. Glevys says:

    As someone who doesn’t know about projects I liked the way the author reaches out to new audiences and makes knowledge accessible to people like me. It would be good to continue along this line:writing essays easy to read,entertaining as well as bringing the personal perspective

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