Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Go for the Real Thing

The Jewish festival of Passover has just finished. The festival is very focused on what is eaten and what may not be eaten, and the food is also used to tell a story.

A couple of years ago I was invited to his family to lead the retelling of the story of the Exodus of the Children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt. This ceremony is called the Seder (meaning order) and is read from a book called the Hagaddah (meaning ‘telling’).

The main focus of the evening is to tell the story and to get children (and adults) to ask questions. Although year after year the same story is re-told, each year we find new meaning in how the Exodus gave birth to our people and how that relates to our own lives.

Anyway, there was another guest at my friend’s house who had attended a seder in which the family sort of made it up as they went along. Now whilst I think that innovation is a good thing, it needs to be done within certain constraints and I’d like to share two stories to illustrate the importance of working within an agreed upon set of rules.

Story 1:

Some time ago I was working in a company that had very little process or agreed upon ways of getting things done. As you can image it was quite a chaotic environment and the people in charge intended for this creative chaos to give rise to a brilliant new product that defied the conventional way of solving the problem this market addressed.

Shortly after I joined the company had chosen to no longer follow this path and introduce a new process. As well as the usual resistance to change, the people promoting this process decided that they wanted to tailor the process to their needs. Normally this would in my opinion be a good thing.

However, the way that they tailored the process meant that the principles were not followed and hence very little benefit was gained from the new process. To add salt to the wounds of the development teams, it was mandated that the new process was the only process that could be followed for running a project.

The company was eventually sold. Some got jobs at the new company and the rest were let go.

Story 2:

There was a man travelling in Eastern Europe selling pots and pans. He would go from town to town selling his wares and after every few weeks would manage to go home to spend time with his wife and family.

One day whilst he was travelling home from a long journey he stopped in the next town from home. Since it was getting late he looked for an inn but they were all full due to a local wedding. Luckily someone noticed him looking upset and he was invited to spend the night with one of the wealthier home owners in town.

For supper that night the wealthy family had 3 courses, one of which was fruit-filled blintzes. The poor travelling merchant was amazed at the taste of the thin pancake wrapped around a delicious filling. He begged his host for the recipe and the rich man’s wife wrote down the recipe for how to make blintzes.

Rushing home the next day the travelling salesman showed his wife the recipe and began singing the praises of this delicious food to his wife. She looked at the expensive list of ingredients and almost burst in to tears.

The wife went to the market and bought the inexpensive ingredients and for the others she made some substitutions. Instead of berries she bought potato and instead of cinnamon she bought pepper. That night as the travelling merchant and his wife sat down together the family was very excited to taste the blintzes. Taking a big bite out of the pancake wrapped delicacy the merchant spat it out in disgust and shouted: “What is this rubbish? This is not how real blintzes should taste!”

Do not Accept Imitations

There are certain rules and principles in a process that need to be followed for it to work. Certainly a Project Manager’s approach should be flexible and make use of a toolbox of techniques and processes to deliver a project within constraints that adds business value. However, if you leave out or change some key rules then the benefit of a process is either reduced, lost or can actually end up costing money.

In a similar manner, if you are going to participate in a religious or magical ritual – make sure it’s the real deal. If, for example, you have been invited to say a Pesach Seder (Passover ceremony retelling the Exodus of the Children of Israel from slavery in Egypt) then please make sure that the people running it are doing it according to Rabbinic Jewish Law. Anything less and you are experiencing blintzes with some key ingredients substituted and it’s really, really not the same thing.

Call me a purist, traditionalist, fanatic or what you like. But coming back to the friends seder above, the guest who had attended the ‘do it yourself’ seder the night before turned to me at the end and said: "This is the real thing!"