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Friday, February 22, 2008

Cooking, Improvising, and Finding Success

You know what's delicious? Chicken marsala. I love it. About a year ago, I was afflicted with an inexplicably intense craving for chicken marsala (as far as inexplicably intense afflictions go, this one's not so bad). This sent me on a quest to learn how to cook amazing chicken marsala. I was like Monty Python looking for the Holy Grail, only without the coconut horses and crazy non-sequiters. I found many recipes and have tried quite a few, but unfortunately, none of the recipes come out as the deliciousness that I've been hoping for.

Don't get me wrong. It tastes good enough that I make it frequently, and I even entertain with it, but it's not super-duper. And I am looking to make me some super-duper marsala. Here's why I believe mine is not yet super-duper: I have been following recipes.

I can hear you now. "You fool, that's cray talk! Of course the secret to great cooking success is to follow recipes!"

Hold your horses there, Wolfgang...Following the recipe is a sound strategy, and it seems to make sense, but there's a challenge. I am not such an experienced cook that I can adjust on the fly. When you really think about it, recipes are just outlines. Little details between the recipe creator's kitchen and ingredients and mine can lead to big changes. The exact quality of the ingredients, the material of the pots and pans, the temperature ranges of the equipment, etc. all can have an impact. Don't think so? Then you need to re-watch Jurrassic Park and learn about "chaos theory." I could explain it myself, but why deprive you the opportunity to watch Jeff Goldblum overact?

When I'm following a recipe, all I know is what's on the page. I don't have the underlying skills to make adjustments as I go. Hence the whole "falling short of super-duper" thing. A great cook would be able to use the recipe as a starting point, but then make the needed adjustments to create an awesome marsala.

In the self-improvement industry, there is a lot of talk about "modelling." (No, not Heidi Kulm modelling, though I do recall someone telling me I was "hot" enough to do it. Then I woke up, stumbled to the mirror, and snapped back to reality...) Basically, you find someone who is getting the result you want and then do what they do to get the same result. Sounds easy, but it has the same limitations as cooking with a recipe. Little differences between you and the "modellee" can lead to giant differences in what results you get. Trying to copy someone else exactly can be a little "Single White Female"; it's all fine and good until someone gets a stiletto in the eye...

The key to achieving great results, whether in cooking, business, or any endeavor, really, is to understand the underlying fundamentals of the task you are doing. It's not enough to follow a script; you have to know what the big picture is and understand why you are doing the things you are doing.

In business, this is most obvious in two cases: people who follow customer service scripts and sales scripts to the letter without really understanding the purpose of those scripts. If you want to deliver great service - or should I say, "super-duper service"? - or flow with the unexpected while selling (or have your people do either), make sure you have a full understanding of what the real goals are and why the script is designed the way it is. The ability to understand the big picture and make adjustments is also what separates great leaders from the rest of the pack.

This is what improvising is all about. One of my main messages in my keynote speech is "planning is important, but improvising is essential." The plan gets you started; your ability to improvise and flow in the right direction is what makes success inevitable, and it's your deep understanding of the fundamentals that lets you improvise.

P.S. If you've got a super-duper Marsala recipe, please post it (or a link to it) as a comment or email it to

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